By Sara Shipley Hiles, Kaiser Health News
WASHINGTON, MO. – In August, local officials in this small town an hour west of St. Louis voted against requiring residents to wear masks to prevent the coronavirus from spreading.
On November 23, as COVID cases increased and the local hospital was overcrowded, the city council brought back a mask order for re-vote. When the protesters marched outside, electrician councilor Nick Obermark was the only member of the bipartisan council to change his vote and pass the mandate.
One of his many reasons? He has a child the same age as Peyton Baumgarth, 13-year-old Washington Middle School student, who was the youngest person to die of COVID complications in Missouri on Halloween.
“That hit pretty hard,” said Obermark later. Although the city council doesn’t wear a mask, it said it would be worth it if we can stop a people or two from getting COVID-19.
Washington was the youngest community to flip its stance on masks and other restrictions as the coronavirus ravages the country.
As America enters a dark winter with no national guidelines to contain the pandemic, numerous cities, counties, and states have to decide: Now put more restrictions or let people do their own thing? Some in this close-knit city of 14,000 have found that the answer – and the key to changing hearts and minds – lies in how close and real the danger seems.
After a spate of deaths in nursing homes in Franklin County, where Washington is located, two months went by without a death from COVID this summer. Some residents viewed the virus as a big city problem and opposed preventive measures.
Families attended weddings with hundreds of guests. Merchants from the city center organized a “thirsty Thursday”, on which the participants mingled over drinks. Even as city hospital officials pushed for COVID restrictions, 356 people signed a letter to the local newspaper expressing their opposition to “being forced to cover our mouths in public.”
Republican governor of Missouri Mike Parson has refused to issue a nationwide mask mandate. Tim Brinker, chairman of the Franklin County Presiding County Commissioner, wrote on Twitter on July 29, “Franklin County MO. No mandates, low case numbers, little to no hospital stays. Logic! Keep your hands clean and cover your face when you don’t have space. We love freedom and respect human life. Come to Franklin County and raise your children in God’s land! #COVID. “
Enjoying freedom and tradition is as expected here, as after the deer hunting season or participation in the Washington Town & Country Fair. Downtown the city, overlooking the swirling brown Missouri River, is lined with historic red-brick buildings and quaint shops. The Missouri Meerschaum Co. still produces corn on the cob pipes on Front Street. His motto: “Over 150 years and still smoking.”
In the months leading up to the election, there were signs of President Donald Trump downplaying the COVID-19 threat since the pandemic began.
But the virus got closer in September when 74-year-old Ralph Struckhoff died of the disease. The Missourian newspaper published a story describing him as a sane man who had just finished building construction in his church for a day before he fell ill. “Please wear a mask in memory of Ralph,” wrote his widow Jayne Struckhoff in a letter to the editor. “If this virus can take Ralph, it can kill anyone.”
Some locals asked: what would this city need to change? Yerina Ranjit, assistant professor of health communications at the University of Missouri, said many factors influence health decisions. For example, she said, people usually follow health advice when they believe a disease is serious and they are prone to it.
“That also applies to COVID,” she said. Older people are more likely to wear masks and social distance. However, others may not wear masks if they believe the virus would not make them very sick.
Symbolic threats or things that people believe threaten their values can also affect behavior. In a poll of U.S. adults that has not yet been made public, Ranjit and her colleagues studied media viewing and found that the type of information people are exposed to makes a real difference. Regardless of political affiliation, Fox News viewers were more likely to believe that the pandemic was threatening the American way of life, making them less likely to wear masks. They “bought in the idea that masks are against our identity,” she said. On the other hand, people who saw MSNBC were more afraid of the virus, which resulted in them wearing masks.
But in November Mayor Sandy Lucy noticed attitudes were evolving. At that point, residents heard of Peyton, the middle school student who quickly turned down and died days after he was hospitalized, his mother told KMOV. According to his obituary, he was known for his love of Pokémon Go, Flag Football, and the St. Louis Blues. “He loved his pups Yadi and Louie, who are lost without their mate,” it said. “He loved listening to music and singing in the school choir.”
“Suddenly, a 13-year-old died,” said Lucy, “and you think maybe this virus is more malicious than I appreciate it.”
Peyton’s mother, Stephanie Franek, pleaded in a television interview: “Wear a mask when you are in public, wash your hands and know COVID is real.”
Meanwhile, the falls have skyrocketed. Between the first and second mask polls, the total number of COVIDs in Franklin County, which has approximately 104,000 residents, rose from 728 to 4,594, and deaths rose from 19 to 75. In the week ended November 23, 25% of COVID tests returned positive results .
Mercy Hospital Washington ran out of space. Hospital President Eric Eoloff linked rising hospital stays and deaths to a lack of safety measures. “As the hospital administrator, I knew that we would end up making the decision not to wear the masks and not to socialize,” he said.
In a surprise move, the Franklin County Board of Commissioners issued a mandatory mask ordinance on November 19. Chairman Commissioner Brinker told The Missourian that he had spoken to local doctors and the St. Louis regional pandemic task force and the numbers “speak for themselves”. Brinker did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Although the order already applied to the city, Washington city council went further and approved its own mask rule four days later. Unlike the district ordinance, which expires on December 20, the city’s mandate remains in place based on metrics related to the new COVID case rate, hospital admissions and deaths.
Dozens of demonstrators carried flags and signs against the mandatory masking in front of the town hall on the evening of the vote. Ali and Duncan Whittington came with their 4 year old daughter. “I’m here because I feel like my freedom is being violated,” said Ali Whittington.
City councilor Obermark later said he had lost a lot of sleep as a result of his decision. “It wasn’t a thing,” he said. “There were several things that made me change my mind.”
The high positivity rate, the lack of capacity in the hospital. Know healthy people who have been “knocked down” COVID for days. His wife needs to be quarantined. And Peyton’s death.
He said he knows masks are not a panacea, but they could help reduce the spread until vaccines arrive.
“We haven’t tried anything and it doesn’t work,” he said, “so we have to try something.”
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KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a non-profit health news service. It is an editorially independent program of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation) that is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.