Jennifer Ruble of Festus

Jennifer Ruble of Festus speaks at the Health Department board meeting on Thursday.

There were fewer fireworks than usual when the Jefferson County Health Department Board of Trustees met Thursday night (Oct. 15), although a few tempers flared, mainly about the topic of facemasks.

Before Thursday’s special meeting was scheduled, Health Department Director Kelley Vollmar announced she was not going to ask the board to issue any type of mandate about wearing masks or limiting gatherings.

Vollmar had previously urged the board to pass a mask mandate, but she said she decided against asking for one again as an “olive branch” to try to bring the community together so they can better work to reduce the number of COVID-19 cases.

“In order to do that, we are going to need everybody's hands on deck,” she said.

About 40 people attended the two-hour meeting on Thursday, when Vollmar talked about her plans for a campaign she is developing to better communicate how the public can help limit the spread of COVID-19. She also told those who attended the meeting she wanted to hear their feedback to help with the plan.

At the start of her presentation, Vollmar explained the county has no current restrictions or mandates related to the virus, although schools and long-term care facilities are currently following guidelines handed down from their boards or the state government.

She said the emergency order the county government issued in March is still in effect, but it does not include restrictions of any kind.

Vollmar also told the board about the Oct. 6 meeting she had with approximately 40 community leaders, saying the meeting was “productive.”

She said some of those who attended the meeting included County Executive Dennis Gannon; Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak; state representatives Mary Elizabeth Coleman and Dan Shaul; Hillsboro Mayor Buddy Russell; and superintendent Desi Kirchhofer of the Northwest R-1 School District and Clint Johnston of the Jefferson R-7 School District, as well as representatives from Comtrea and long-term care facilities.

One good idea from that meeting, Vollmar said, was for the marketing campaign to explain the benefits of social distancing, practicing good hygiene and wearing masks.

She said radio ads featuring Gannon will start to air next week on KJFF.

Vollmar also said she had a meeting earlier on Thursday with public information officers from the Sheriff’s Office and local police departments, as well as with school district officials, to discuss spreading the campaign’s message.

“Everybody wants to go back to normal and we can do this, but it’s going to take the combined effort of everybody,” she said. “We have to find a way to kind of put the anger aside and focus on the true problem, which is COVID.”

Vollmar said she also plans to refocus some effort on mental health programs.

“COVID has taken so much of our physical time that getting these extra resources in place will be significant in being able to really step back into taking a very preventive strategy,” she said.

Before the start of Thursday’s meeting, tensions ran high.

At least one person had a sign calling for Vollmar to be fired.

Also before the meeting, Vollmar and Health Department board member Suzy Davis spoke to the media and at one point, Davis said the White House Pandemic Task Force had never placed Jefferson County in the red alert status, as the Health Department previously had reported.

However, according to a Missouri state report from the White House Task Force, Jefferson County was in the red level for a period. According to the report, a county must have more than 101 cases per 100,000 people per week to be in the red level.

When Davis entered the meeting, she had no mask on and said she had an asthma attack on the way to the meeting and needed to catch her breath before putting on a mask.

Vollmar and Health Department board chair Dennis Diehl asked Davis to put on a mask or wait outside until she could put one on, and several people in the audience yelled, “Leave her alone, Kelley.”

One person argued that asking Davis to put on a mask was a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Davis eventually put on a mask and wore it throughout the meeting. All the other board members, including Diehl, Tim Pigg, James Prater and Amber Henry, wore masks at the meeting.

A couple of times during the meeting someone yelled out a criticism against Vollmar or Davis, and Pigg warned them against making personal attacks.

Public comments

A total of 21 residents spoke at the meeting, with each one getting three minutes to talk. Even though no mask mandate was on the agenda for the meeting, many of those who spoke brought up the issue, and only four people spoke in favor of mask mandates.

One of those four was Jennifer Ruble, 44, of Festus.

“It is extremely unfortunate that COVID-19 has turned our community and all of us into an us vs. them mentality; it’s not about that,” she said. “We all have to work together to defeat this. I am here to plead with the board and community members to please wear a mask when you're in public.”

Ruble also said the behavior she witnessed during past contentious board meetings was “extremely disturbing.”

Jamie Cheaney, 45, of Arnold said she came forward to speak for people who cannot wear a mask because of a medical condition, like her son who has autoimmune encephalitis, which is when the body’s immune system mistakenly attacks healthy brain cells causing inflammation of the brain.

“My issue with the masks is they increase the risk of bacterial infections,” she said.

Several of the speakers brought up the importance of taking vitamins to help prevent getting COVID-19 and to recover from the disease.

“There was a lot of talk about supplements and vitamins and taking care of yourself and really building a healthy body, and I think that's something that the Health Department really does encourage,” Vollmar said.

She said she felt it was helpful to her from the public at the Thursday meeting.

“It's a baby step at a time; as long as we're moving in a forward direction, I think that's good,” she said.

Next meeting

The Board of Trustees next meeting is 3 p.m. Thursday (Oct. 22), and no discussion about masks or a mask mandate is expected.

Typically, the board’s regular meetings are held at the Health Department’s Hillsboro Office, which has virtually no room for anyone to attend except the board and a few staff members.

The special meeting was held at the Hillsboro Community Civic Club and was held later in the day to allow the public to attend, Diehl said.

Vollmar said she will leave the decision about the location for the next regular meeting up to Diehl.

At the meeting, the board is expected to review a contract to hire a company to help with contact tracing, which is contacting people who have possibly been exposed to a COVID-19 patient.

Vollmar said the company would be paid with CARES Act funding.

County COVID-19 stats

The Health Department reported 84 new COVID-19 cases today (Oct. 16), including five at long-term care facilities.

That brings the total number of cases in the county to 5,474 since the first ones were reported in March.

Those cases are through midnight Thursday (Oct. 15), according to the Health Department.

Of those cases, 908 cases are active ones, which includes lab confirmed and probable cases which are still under investigation and have not been released from either quarantine or isolation, the Health Department reported.

The county also has had a total of 66 COVID-19-related deaths since the pandemic began, according to the Health Department reported.

Of the 5,373 cases in the county, 5,048 are lab confirmed and 426 probable cases. A case is considered probable when a person has been exposed to a positive case and is exhibiting symptoms, the Health Department reported.

A total of 952 people currently is in quarantine, which means a person has a confirmed exposure to the virus and is in the process of completing a 14-day quarantine period.

Of the county’s total coronavirus cases, 650 have been at long-term care facilities, which includes residents and staff members who live in Jefferson County.

Of the 66 COVID-19 deaths, 48 have been at long-term care facilities, the Health Department reported.

The county has had at least 19 COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care facilities, according to the Health Department.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) defines an outbreak as one or more residents testing positive for the virus or one or more staff members who have worked within a facility in the 14 days before testing positive.

The county currently is in the orange level on the Health Department’s four-color COVID-19 warning system. The orange level is the second highest level on the system and indicates widespread but controlled transmission of the virus.

It also means over the previous week, the county, which has a population of about 225,000 people, had a rolling average of 10 to 24 new COVID-19 cases per day per 100,000 residents. If the county has a rolling average of 25 or more cases per day per 100,000 residents it is moved into the highest level, which is the red level.