After many of them have worked remotely for more than a year, state employees will soon return to their offices.
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson issued a directive Wednesday ordering state employees to return to in-person work on May 17, even though COVID-19 vaccination rates in Missouri are far below the threshold for herd immunity.
In a news release, Parson said the availability of vaccines and low infection rates influenced his decision.
“With COVID-19 vaccines now readily available across the state and virus activity at its lowest levels since early days of the pandemic, we are confident that it is safe to return to pre-COVID-19 work settings and schedules,” the statement read.
State buildings will be required to be open and accessible to the public during regular business hours.
Just 38% of Missouri residents have received at least one vaccine shot and just under 30% have completed their vaccinations, according to state data. Health experts estimate that around 70% to 80% of people in a community must be vaccinated in order to achieve “herd immunity,” making the further spread of the virus unlikely.
Infectious disease specialist Dr. Mary Anne Jackson, dean of the University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Medicine, said overall trends indicate that returning to in-person work could be done safely.
“Vaccination rates, although they are not exactly where I’d like them to be in the state of Missouri, are continuing to go up,” Jackson said. “I think it’s appropriate to make plans for individuals to be coming back.”
Jackson added, however, that continuing to take preventive measures such as wearing masks remains important.
Kansas City Health Department Director Dr. Rex Archer said he hoped Parson's decision would spur more people to get vaccinated now that vaccines are widely accessible.
“I’ll be honest, one of the best ways of encouraging people to get vaccinated is letting them know they can’t stay home anymore,” Archer said.
An average of 722 Missouri residents are diagnosed with COVID-19 each day, according to a New York Times analysis. That’s well below the rate during most of the fall and winter, but new cases have gradually increased since early March, when they had declined to less than 500 per day.
“It’s something that we have to keep our eyes on,” Jackson said.
Recent increases in cases are thought to be driven in part by the spread of new variants, many of which are more transmissible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the B.1.1.7.variant now makes up about two-thirds of COVID-19 cases currently spreading in the region, which includes Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri.
Missouri’s testing for variants has been minimal, and health department officials acknowledge that the variants are more widespread than surveillance has found.
Parson in the news release encouraged state employees to “consider” getting vaccinated. All Missourians are now eligible to get the vaccines.
The release said measures to prevent COVID-19 transmission will also be encouraged, although it said no statewide mandates would be implemented.
Jackson said that local communities should consider taking their own preventive measures, although updates to CDC guidance regarding COVID-19 will be needed to inform those efforts.
“What we have to do is follow the science to create best recommendations for our communities based on case rates and test positivity rates,” she said.
Vaccination rates have fallen the to the lowest levels in weeks, according to the state dashboard, which shows the average rate of vaccinations last week falling below 30,000 per day, the lowest since late February. Vaccinations peaked at an average of 50,000 per day in early April.