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People head to a baseball game in St. Louis, Missouri on August 3, 2021

People head to a baseball game in St. Louis, Missouri on August 3, 2021. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

'Unconscionable': Missouri Accused of Burying Analysis Showing Mask Mandates Save Lives

The findings were only made available this week due to a public records request by a local independent news outlet and the Documenting Covid-19 Project.

Kenny Stancil

An analysis by the Missouri health department showed that mask mandates reduce the spread of the coronavirus and save lives, but the findings weren't made available until this week—and only due to a public records request by The Missouri Independent and the Documenting Covid-19 Project at the Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

"It confirms for us what our public health experts have been saying, that masks are an effective tool for reducing community transmission."

As The Missouri Independent reported on Wednesday, Republican Gov. Mike Parson's office on Nov. 1 requested a study on the effectiveness of mask mandates. But after researchers informed his administration two days later that the four jurisdictions in Missouri with mask mandates—St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City, and Jackson County—experienced lower rates of Covid-19 infections and deaths during a devastating six-month wave fueled by the ultra-contagious Delta variant, the report was not made public.

It is "unconscionable to bury data," Kathleen Bachynski, an assistant professor of public health at Muhlenberg College, said Friday.

According to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, areas with mask mandates had an average of 15.8 new Covid-19 cases per day for every 100,000 residents from the end of April until the end of October, compared with 21.7 daily cases per 100,000 people in areas without mask mandates during the same time period.

Municipalities with mask requirements also recorded fewer deaths per capita—a rate of one death per 100,000 residents every five days, compared with one death per 100,000 residents every 3.5 days where masks weren't required.

This valuable information was withheld from Missourians for weeks, however, and it may never have seen the light of day had it not been for The Missouri Independent and the Documenting Covid-19 project, which made a Sunshine Law request to the department, resulting in the data being made public for the first time on Wednesday.

Infection rates in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City, and Jackson County "were higher than the rest of the state in the six weeks prior to the emergence of the Delta variant," the nonprofit newsroom reported. "Case rates then fell below other regions as the surge gathered force in late May and have remained lower since that time... The four jurisdictions imposed their mask mandates in late July and early August, as the Delta variant wave was peaking."

There are several factors that affect infection and death rates. For instance, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found in September that individuals in the U.S. who were fully vaccinated last spring and summer were 11 times less likely to die from Covid-19—and 10 times less likely to be hospitalized—than those who were not fully inoculated.

Jackson County, home to Kansas City, and St. Louis County are among the most vaccinated jurisdictions in Missouri, according to the New York Times.

While many variables "must be considered," the efficacy of masks is evident, state health director Donald Kauerauf wrote in a Nov. 3 email thanking staff members who conducted the analysis.

"I think we can say with great confidence reviewing the public health literature and then looking at the results in your study that communities where masks were required had a lower positivity rate per 100,000 and experienced lower death rates," he wrote. 

Two minutes later, Kauerauf shared the results with Parson's office, though "the analysis wasn't included in material the department prepared for cabinet meetings," The Missouri Independent reported.

Like GOP officials in several other states, Missouri's governor and attorney general have undermined certain public health policies throughout the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 780,000 people in the U.S. and over 5.2 million worldwide.

The Missouri Independent reported:

Parson has spoken out repeatedly against local mask mandates, calling them "WRONG" in a tweet and a contributor to the erosion of public trust. Attorney General Eric Schmitt has gone a step further, suing St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City, and Jackson County to block enforcement of their mask mandates.

"Jackson County has imposed an unlawful, arbitrary, and capricious mask mandate that is not supported by the data or the science," the opening sentence to Schmitt's lawsuit against Jackson County states.

Contrary to the baseless claim made by Schmitt—who has also sued Columbia Public Schools for implementing mask requirements—the state health department's analysis that was concealed for weeks does substantiate the need for mask mandates.

"Mask rcoequirements remain in place in St. Louis and St. Louis County," The Missouri Independent reported. "The Jackson County Legislature voted to end its requirement in early November, and the mandate in Kansas City ended Nov. 5 except for schools and school buses."

Notably, those decisions were made before the emergence of the Omicron variant, whose transmissibility and virulence epidemiologists are still studying.

Nick Dunne, a spokesperson for St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones, told The Missouri Independent that the state health department's analysis vindicates the city's mask-wearing rules, and officials there intend to maintain their mandate.

"More than anything it confirms for us what our public health experts have been saying, that masks are an effective tool for reducing community transmission," said Dunne.

Although Missouri is one of six states that never imposed a statewide mask mandate and Parson has made clear his opposition to mask requirements, the governor has allowed local jurisdictions to enact certain public health precautions as they see fit.

Cole County Judge Daniel Green, meanwhile, ruled last week that public health orders issued by local authorities to prevent the spread of Covid-19 violate the Missouri Constitution.

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday in a statement responding to the state health department's analysis that "this data shows that the public health experts, the St. Louis Metropolitan Task Force, and the St. Louis County Department of Public Health make good decisions to protect our community."

A spokesperson from AG Schmitt's office, by contrast, told The Missouri Independent that "we dispute this premise and these charts... [and] we will continue to fiercely litigate our lawsuits against mask mandates in Missouri."

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