The number of reported cases of COVID-19 in Missouri officially topped 500 Thursday — with the death toll remaining at 8.
Gov. Mike Parson began his daily briefing Thursday with those immediate numbers, and then shifted to talking about the lingering effects of the novel coronavirus.
“Mental health is something everyone should focus on, not just right now, but going forward, as Missourians continue to cope with the after effects of COVID-19,” Parson said.
A 10-15 percent increase in calls to a 24-hour crisis hotline in the St. Louis area in recent weeks has largely been due to concerns about COVID-19, said Mark Stringer, director of the Department of Mental Health.
There’s the general anxiety of the current moment in itself, and then there are also the worries of people with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that they may not be able to get the medication they need, Stringer said.
“Going forward, there will be increasing distress and more people seeking help, especially as people become unemployed and go without income for extended periods of time,” he said, adding there are few more difficult experiences for a human being than losing a job.
The Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Division of Employment Security processed more than 42,000 individual initial unemployment claims for the week ending March 21 — more than 10 times as many claims as processed the week before that, and equal to nearly 25 percent of the total number of claims processed in all of last year, according to a news release.
Stringer said jobs help people have stability in their lives, and without a job, that stability can also start to fall apart.
“I’m afraid that we will see more suicides,” he said.
While there are not enough mental health professionals in the country, Stringer said, “we’re getting better at dealing with that reality” through the use of telehealth and more peer-specialists — people who themselves “have lived experience with mental illness or substance use disorders,” are in recovery and want to help other people.
One of the things Parson specifically requested this week from the federal government was crisis counseling assistance.
President Donald Trump approved Parson’s request for a federal major disaster declaration Thursday night, but the request for crisis counseling assistance was still under review.
Stringer said the crisis counseling assistance would provide extra funding for community mental health providers to do outreach and engagement.
However, meeting mental health needs during and after the pandemic will be tough because of the additional challenge that the pandemic is all over the place. By comparison, he said, “most disasters are localized,” such as a tornado going through one or two cities and help coming in from elsewhere.
He and the Department of Mental Health recommended a couple specific resources for people to reach out for help:
Someone feeling overwhelmed due to stress related to the pandemic can call the federal Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990, or they can text “TalkWithUs” to 66746. The helpline is a free, confidential service that supports anyone experiencing stress after a traumatic event such as a pandemic.
In addition to providing confidential counseling, hotline staff can also make referrals and connect people with other services — including the Access Crisis Intervention system, which, according to a news release from Parson’s office, is staffed with “professionals linked to state certified mental health and substance use disorder services.” More information is available at dmh.mo.gov/media/pdf/disaster-distress-helpline-brochure.
The Missouri Coalition for Community Behavioral Healthcare also offers the myStrength app to assist with stress. The self-help resource is available 24/7, is private and confidential, and “provides information around stress management, depression, anxiety, substance use disorders, chronic pain, sleep issues and more.” More information is available at www.mocoalition.org/cornonavirus-covid-19.
Stringer said the Department of Mental Health is also working on ways to better serve people who cannot afford cellphones or extra minutes.
Even as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 continues to spread, the state is continuing to work to maintain its critical transportation infrastructure.
“The transportation of PPE is critical,” Parson said.
PPE is the personal protective equipment that’s needed by medical providers and first responders in testing, treating, and working with potential and confirmed COVID-19 patients.
Patrick McKenna, Missouri Department of Transportation director, said efforts are being made to more frequently clean and disinfect interstate highway rest areas and to keep them open; design and construction on road and bridge projects is continuing; future project bid openings — which are fully electronic — are proceeding; and the state’s Highways and Transportation Commission will continue to meet, electronically.
McKenna added pothole patching, striping and other pavement repair work will also continue, while meeting social distancing and hygiene guidelines.
When asked if the department is seeing or concerned about shortages of raw materials because of COVID-19’s disruptions of factories and global supply chains, MoDOT’s spokeswoman Sally Oxenhandler said: “Because this is the beginning of our construction season, projects are just starting up. We have not heard any specific concerns about raw material shortages at this time. We are in communication with our contractors on a regular basis. We are aware that over time, a shortage of materials could be an issue. It is one that we will have to monitor and respond to as the situation demands.”
McKenna added hours, weight limit and other regulations for trucking have been relaxed. More specifically:
“We’ve eased restrictions to allow for heavier than normal truckloads of emergency supplies and equipment to travel on all Missouri highways, including interstates. This includes shipments of livestock and poultry, and associated feed and fuel.” More information on the overweight load permit and other regulatory relaxations is available at www.modot.org/mcs.
MoDOT also suspended all Missouri International Registration Plan and International Fuel Tax Agreement requirements, “including fees for vehicles not currently registered for interstate travel in Missouri.”
The Missouri Department of Revenue has also relaxed regulations for individuals with commercial driver’s licenses. CDL licenses that would expire this month and in April are receiving 60-day extensions. Individuals holding a CDL or CLP with a current 90 or more-day medical certificate that expires this month or in April have been granted an extension of the medical certificate until June 30. Both extensions are automatic.
Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said Thursday more than 6,000 tests for COVID-19 have been done in the state.
Williams said about 8 percent of the tests analyzed by the State Health Laboratory have come back positive for the disease, and it’s been 6-8 percent positive among commercial tests.
Of the state’s 502 reported COVID-19 cases, most continue to be in more highly-populated areas around the state’s major cities: 173 in St. Louis County; 64 in Kansas City; 57 in St. Louis City; 31 in Jackson County; 25 in Greene and Boone counties each; 22 in St. Charles County; and 10 in Jefferson County.
The Cole County Health Department reported 12 cases in the county, with 2 people who had been infected having recovered.
There have been three deaths in Greene County from the disease, as well as one death in each of Boone, Jackson, St. Charles and St. Louis counties, and St. Louis City.
Parson said a large number of cases continue to be among people in their 20s.
Younger adults do not tend to die as much from the disease as seniors and people with compromised immune systems, but Williams said younger people may be propelling infections.
“This shows that it doesn’t matter how old you are, you’re still at risk, and we need everyone to take this seriously,” Parson said.
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