Tagged Missouri

Despite Pandemic Threat, Gubernatorial Hopefuls Avoid COVID Nitty-Gritty

Just 15 days ahead of the election, Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney laid out his ideas on how he’d handle the COVID-19 pandemic if elected governor. Details were few, but the Democrat’s plan became one of only a handful being offered by candidates in the 11 U.S. governor’s races about how they’ll approach what’s certain to be the dominant issue of their terms, should they win.

While much of the nation’s focus is on who will be president come January, voters who are deciding the next occupant of their governor’s mansion are also effectively choosing the next leader of their state’s COVID-19 response. The virus has made governors’ power highly visible to voters. As the states’ top executives, they decide whether to issue mask mandates, close businesses and order people to stay home.

All but two races for governor feature incumbents running for reelection: Montana’s Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock can’t run again because of term limits and Utah’s Republican Gov. Gary Herbert decided not to run for another term. In several other competitive races for governor this year, such as those in North Carolina and Missouri, opponents clash on the role of state mandates in slowing the virus. Still, COVID-19 often fades into the backdrop of many long-standing platforms or primarily comes up as candidates talk about the need to revive the economy.

Cooney’s proposal, released Monday, suggested using the National Guard to transport patients in extreme weather and subsidizing heating bills to help those quarantining at home. But other parts vaguely described how he would “develop a robust plan” to come.

His opponent, Republican U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, has acknowledged the health crisis but has focused primarily on the economy, saying the state has to “cure the economic pandemic” the virus caused.

Rep. Greg Gianforte, Mike Cooney’s Republican opponent, joins President Donald Trump at a rally at the Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport on Nov. 3, 2018, in Belgrade, Montana.(William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images)

Bryce Ward, a health economist with the University of Montana, said Cooney’s list was one of the first times he’s seen long-term planning for COVID-19 come up in what appears to be the nation’s tightest governor’s race. But, he added, neither Montana candidate has offered a concrete plan to deal with the dual crises that risk public health when people gather and businesses’ bottom lines when they don’t. Meanwhile, the state’s number of COVID-19 cases climbs and its economy suffers.

“Whoever wins, this is going to be the bulk of their term,” Ward said. “How are the candidates going to keep people afloat as long as they can? What are we doing in terms of planning for what we think our post-COVID world is going to look like?”

An October KFF poll found 29% of registered voters said the economy was the most important issue in choosing a president, while 18% said the coronavirus outbreak was their top issue. Republican voters were more likely to pick the economy, the survey found, and Democrats were more likely to pick the coronavirus. (KHN is an editorially independent program of KFF.)

“There are voters that feel that the government needs to lead, and there are voters that feel that the government is utilizing a pandemic to become too invasive,” said Capri Cafaro, a former Democratic Ohio state senator now teaching in American University’s public administration and policy department. “People are not necessarily making their decisions on ‘Did you do contact tracing? Are you going to slow the spread?’”

Among the incumbent governors seeking reelection this year, most of their campaigns’ focus on COVID-19 has been on how well they’ve responded to the crisis. Several pledge more of what they’ve been doing. “We’ll continue to follow the science and wear masks,” Delaware Democratic Gov. John Carney said in a recent debate.

Meanwhile, their challengers generally seek to cast the incumbents as mismanaging their states’ response and promising to undo what’s been done. Those who have put out actual plans to handle the pandemic are Democratic challengers to Republican governors, and their plans are similar to what Cooney released — some specific ideas and promises to fill in the gaps later.

In Missouri, Democratic challenger Nicole Galloway, who is the state auditor, made health care the center of her campaign and released a plan to respond to the virus with a statewide mask mandate and a limit on when public school classes can meet in person based on the community’s rate of infection.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson is the apparent front-runner in that state’s race. He has pledged to lead “the greatest economic comeback that we’ve ever seen in Missouri history.” The former Polk County sheriff also has focused on supporting law enforcement amid backlash against police brutality and racial injustice.

Curbing the coronavirus has taken a back seat to boosting the economy in Parson’s campaign. And, as governor, Parson has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, despite a White House recommendation to do so. In late September, the governor and his wife tested positive for COVID-19. Parson has returned to work, which includes traveling across the state.

One of the more heated races is in North Carolina, where Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper is defending his seat against a challenge by his lieutenant governor, Republican Dan Forest. Forest sued Cooper this year to challenge the governor’s authority to impose COVID-related restrictions by executive order.

Forest dropped the lawsuit in August after a judge made a preliminary ruling against his case, then said on Twitter, “I did my part. If y’all want your freedoms back you’ll have to make your voices heard in November.”

Cooper’s campaign called the lawsuit “a desperate tactic to garner attention” for Forest’s political campaign. Since then, the governor has slowly eased COVID restrictions, updating an executive order to allow a limited number of people in bars, sporting events, movie theaters and amusement parks. Cooper is leading the race in recent polls.

Back in Montana, the pandemic surfaced in the gubernatorial campaign after health officials announced on Oct. 16 that a Helena concert, which Gianforte attended, was linked to several COVID-19 cases. More than 100 health professionals blasted him in an open letter for flouting local health restrictions, going maskless and making light of safety precautions at campaign events. Cooney called on him to suspend his campaign events until tested. Gianforte’s campaign has said he’s taking proper precautions and accused Cooney of politicizing a public health issue.

Cooney has said he’ll keep Montana’s COVID-19 response on the track he is helping set as lieutenant governor, with science guiding that work. Gianforte, who built a tech startup in Bozeman, has touted his business experience as proof he can lead Montana’s comeback. Both have said more needs to be learned about this virus and have pitched themselves as the one to steer the state’s economy through the crisis.

Ward, the University of Montana health economist, said the details are missing, such as how the winner will support businesses through the winter without federal aid. Or what the new governor would cut from the state budget if the economic crisis hits its coffers.

The state has a public mask mandate and a plan for reopening the economy with no apparent thresholds or timelines. The option for stricter rules has been left to county governments as the state sees its largest COVID surge yet.

Jeremy Johnson, a political scientist at Carroll College in Helena, said the initial lack of detailed pandemic policy in the state’s race could be attributed to both candidates trying to win over swing voters with safe themes. President Donald Trump won Montana in 2016 by 20 points, but the state has also had a Democratic governor for 16 years. While polls show Gianforte leading Cooney slightly, election handicappers Real Clear Politics and the Cook Political Report still consider the race a toss-up.

Yet as Election Day nears, the question of how to address the pandemic only looms larger. Montana’s case count is rising, adding to its total of more than 23,000 cases in the state of roughly 1 million.

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COVID Takes Challenge of Tracking Infectious College Students to New Level

As the return of college students to campuses has fueled as many as 3,000 COVID-19 cases a day, keeping track of them is a logistical nightmare for local health departments and colleges.

Some students are putting down their home addresses instead of their college ones on their COVID testing forms — slowing the transfer of case data and hampering contact tracing across state and county lines.

The address issue has real consequences, as any delay in getting the case to the appropriate authorities allows the coronavirus to continue to spread unchecked. Making matters worse, college-age people already tend to be hard to trace because they are unlikely to answer a phone call from an unknown number.

“With that virus, you really need to be able to identify that case and their contacts in 72 hours,” said Indiana University’s assistant director for public health, Graham McKeen.

And if the students do go home once infected, where should their cases be counted? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention highlighted this issue in a recent study of an unnamed North Carolina university’s COVID outbreak, stating that the number of cases was likely an underestimate. “For example, some cases were reported to students’ home jurisdictions, some students did not identify themselves as students to the county health department, some students did not report to the student health clinic, and not all students were tested,” it said.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force even addressed the problem in weekly memos sent to the governors of Missouri, Arkansas, Iowa, Kentucky and New Jersey. “Do not reassign cases that test positive in university settings to hometown as this lessens ability to track and control local spread,” it recommended late last month in the memos, made public by the Center for Public Integrity.

While the full scope of the address confusion is unclear, the health departments of California, Indiana, Iowa and Virginia all acknowledged the challenges that arise when college cases cross state and county lines.

The maze of calls needed to track such cases also lays bare a larger problem: the lack of an interconnected COVID tracking system. Colleges have been setting up their own contact tracing centers to supplement overstretched local and state health departments.

“It is very patchwork, and people operate very differently, and it also doesn’t translate during a pandemic,” said McKeen, whose own university has had more than 2,900 cases across its Indiana campuses. “It made it very clear the public health system in this country is horribly underfunded and understaffed.”

Colleges’ transient populations have forever bedeviled public health when it comes to reportable infectious diseases, such as measles and bacterial meningitis, Association of Public Health Laboratories spokesperson Michelle Forman said in an email to KHN. But the coronavirus infections spreading across the country’s universities, and the mass testing conducted to find them, are something else altogether.

“COVID is just a different scale,” she said.

Lisa Cox, a spokesperson for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, said the issue of transient addresses affects more than just college students. Jails and rehab facilities also have people moving in and out, exacerbating the risk of disease spread and the difficulty in tracking it.

The crush of student cases at the start of a new term, though, can be overwhelming. As students returned to the University of Missouri, the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services saw a COVID spike, with the peak reaching more than 200 new cases per day.

“So, first of all, we’re delayed anyway because we can’t keep up with the onslaught of cases,” said Scott Clardy, assistant director of the health department.

But then, he added, these address mishaps required his department to spend time attempting to reclassify counts and contact possibly infected people.

“It slows us down,” he said, estimating the department was up to five days behind in mid-September on contacting infected people and reaching out to those who may have been exposed to the virus.

The University of Missouri has had more than 1,600 cases so far, but spokesperson Christian Basi said the number of new cases has dropped significantly. By the end of September, the health department had finally caught up, Clardy said, letting staffers trace contacts more quickly.

This address issue can also mean some cases are potentially being undercounted, double counted or initially counted incorrectly as state health departments sort out where these infected students actually are staying, Indiana University’s McKeen said — potentially skewing case counts and positivity rates for local jurisdictions. He has noticed several such cases.

Iowa and Indiana officials said they were working with localities to ensure cases did not go miscounted, including developing directions for college students to put down their school address. Virginia officials said their contact tracers work diligently to identify the infected person’s current location and share it with other health departments if it is out of Virginia.

In Massachusetts, Pat Bruchmann, chief public health nurse for the Worcester Division of Public Health, said she had noticed some students at the 11 colleges in her district were getting tested off campus or when they went home for the weekend. In response, her department now proactively looks for positive test results among people who are of typical college age. So far, she’s had 10 or so cases reassigned to her department from other areas because of address issues, Bruchmann said.

Back in Missouri, freshman Kate Taylor said she fell through the cracks amid the initial rush of cases at the University of Missouri at the end of August.

After testing positive for COVID-19, Taylor said, she was told there wasn’t enough room for her to quarantine on campus. The university’s Basi denied that any students had been told the school didn’t have enough space but said he could not discuss details of Taylor’s case without her consent.

The 18-year-old student said she went home 2½ hours away to Jefferson County, where she was told her case would be transferred to local officials. But after nine days of quarantining, Taylor said, she never heard from anyone at her local health department.

She said her contact tracing experience wasn’t much better: Her boyfriend at the university got a call about her case, but the tracer got him confused with her roommate. The tracer then hung up.

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