Sarah Fentem

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.

Missouri health and environmental officials will soon test wastewater statewide to determine where and when coronavirus outbreaks could occur. 

Researchers have been testing wastewater for the coronavirus at several sites in St. Louis and Springfield since late May and are expanding the program to 64 more sites statewide starting this week.

Wastewater contains genetic remnants of the coronavirus. Monitoring sewage will allow state and local health departments to know which communities could be susceptible to a large outbreak before many residents start showing symptoms, said Marc Johnson, a molecular biologist and professor at the University of Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Social Services must pay Planned Parenthood for providing care for Medicaid patients, the state Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

State lawmakers cut funding for the provider in the 2018 budget by inserting language that barred state funds, including those from the state’s Medicaid program MO HealthNet, from going to any abortion provider.

In a 6-1 decision, the Missouri Supreme Court affirmed a 2019 ruling from a lower court that found the provision was an example of lawmakers using a budget bill to create policy, which is prohibited by the Missouri Constitution.

St. Louis and St. Louis County officials are urging people who may have contracted the coronavirus to get tested, even if they don’t have a cough, fever or other common symptoms.

County Executive Sam Page said Wednesday that two county-run health centers will begin providing free testing to people without symptoms on Monday. And St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson announced last week that asymptomatic people can now be tested for the virus for free at federally qualified health centers in the city and county.

Previously, testing has only been available to people who had symptoms or had been in contact with someone who was positive for the virus.

At least 253 nursing home residents in Missouri have died from COVID-19, according to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

In data released this week, the agency named dozens of Missouri nursing homes with at least one COVID-19 case. The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services has withheld that data, citing privacy concerns.

The data covers the period through May 31. State health officials say there were 771 COVID deaths at that time.

Updated 7 a.m. May 31 with police information.

Protesters brought havoc and destruction to Ferguson’s police headquarters and the city’s downtown at the end of a night of protests against police brutality mirrored around the nation Saturday.

The demonstrations and their ensuing vandalism were sparked by the death last week of George Floyd, a black man who died after a Minneapolis police officer restrained him by kneeling on his neck. Protests began in that city and have since spread across the country.

Mercy Health plans to lay off workers in many of its departments because the coronavirus crisis has cut its revenues. 

The Chesterfield-based health system did not specify how many people it would lay off but said in a written statement the cuts would affect every level of the organization. 

Mercy said the furloughs would begin next week and last through the end of July.

The number of people enrolled in the state’s Medicaid program reached a five-year low in December, falling to 846,554. That’s 130,000 fewer people — including 100,000 children — on the rolls since January 2018.

Democratic lawmakers and other critics said the large drop in enrollment is a sign that the state agency in charge of administering the program is culling people unfairly and leaving them without needed medical services.

Missouri had the highest increase in the rate of uninsured children in the nation over the two-year period that ended in 2018, according to a study from Georgetown University. 

In 2018, 5.3% of Missouri children under age 6 were uninsured, up from 3.6% two years earlier. Nationwide, uninsured rates in that age group rose to more than 4%.

Not having health coverage could have severe consequences for young children, pediatricians said. Without health insurance, kids miss doctor’s appointments that can identify health problems and provide preventative care such as vaccinations.

The petition to put a Medicaid expansion in Missouri to a statewide vote has garnered more than 25% of the needed signatures to place the measure on the November 2020 ballot, according to campaign officials.

The effort to extend eligibility for the state-sponsored health insurance program to those making up to $18,000 a year also has received support from several high-profile state organizations, including Washington University and BJC HealthCare.

People in rural areas have more unnecessary hospital visits and are more likely to die from chronic conditions than people in cities because they have little access to specialists, according to a study by St. Louis researchers.

Researchers from St. Louis University, Washington University and Harvard studied nationwide survey and claims data from thousands of Medicare patients with chronic conditions.

The chief doctor at Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis clinic testified during a high-profile regulatory hearing on Wednesday that the abortions performed there are safe and that the facility has an above-average record of successful procedures.

State health officials earlier this year decided not to renew the license for Planned Parenthood’s abortion clinic, citing concerns about patient safety.

The four instances of patient care that caused state regulators alarm were in line with acceptable legal and medical standards of care, said Dr. Colleen McNicholas, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services. The clinic performs thousands of procedures a year, she said. 

On the first day of an administrative hearing that could determine the fate of Missouri’s sole abortion clinic, attorneys for the state questioned the safety of Planned Parenthood’s clinic and said state regulators acted with patients in mind when they did not renew its license.

The lawyers spent hours attempting to prove through witness testimony the state’s Department of Health and Human Services acted legally when it did not issue a renewed license to Planned Parenthood Reproductive Health Services in St. Louis last June.

A member of the Administrative Hearing Commission, a nonpartisan state body that resolves regulatory disputes, will decide if the department acted properly.

More than 12% of Missouri children are obese, but the 2018 rate held steady from the year before, according to a report from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Although obesity among Missourians age 10-17 is relatively unchanged, doctors say the stabilizing rate is a sign that public awareness campaigns and other health initiatives are working. 

“I think the fact it’s not going up is a great thing to see,” said Julie Benard, a Columbia pediatrician who specializes in treating childhood obesity. “It’s a great thing to see, at least for our initial efforts in making sure we’re at least curbing the trend of childhood obesity.”

Public health experts are urging Missourians to get a flu shot ahead of a flu season that could likely arrive earlier and be more severe than last year’s. 

The vaccine is the most effective way for people to protect themselves and others in the community from the flu, state health officials said. 

“Herd immunity” also can protect at-risk people including the elderly, young children and people who cannot safely receive vaccines, but only if high numbers of people who can receive the shot are immunized.

Missouri health officials have confirmed two cases in the state of a mysterious vaping-related pulmonary illness that has sickened hundreds of people across the nation. 

Missouri officials are investigating the cases of seven other patients to determine if their symptoms match the criteria for the illness. They’re also warning consumers not to tamper with vaping products.

Patients with the illness report nausea, shortness of breath, fever and elevated heart rates. The nine Missouri patients have reported modifying pre-packaged vaping products to smoke other substances such as vitamin E or THC, said Randall Williams, director of the state Department of Health and Senior Services.

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