JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KMIZ)
Counties where mask mandates were implemented experienced a lower number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, according to a data analysis conducted by the Department of Health and Senior Services and obtained through an open records request by the Missouri Independent and the Documenting COVID-19 project. However, state officials say the information shared was taken out of context.
By comparing the seven-day averages of cases in Missouri counties with and without mask mandates in place, the graphs show that both case and death numbers were lower during the peak of the delta variant in counties that enforced mask-wearing.
The Independent reported that the analysis was conducted at the request of Gov. Mike Parson's office on Nov. 1, but not shared publicly. However, Parson took to Twitter Thursday evening to say the article was "misleading" and "[the reporter] left out important information that provides context for the whole story."
Rudi Keller, the Missouri Independent deputy editor that worked on the report, spoke with ABC 17 about how the emails were uncovered.
"The Documenting COVID project regularly submits Sunshine Requests to the Department of Health and Senior Services as part of its ongoing work to review how states are handling the COVID pandemic around the country," Keller said.
Graphs in the study show masked counties -- mostly in urban areas -- had a higher number of cases before the spread of the delta variant. After the delta variant was discovered in Missouri, cases in unmasked counties rose above masked counties. The graphs show cases in unmasked counties remained higher through the end of October.
In emails obtained by the Missouri Independent, Donald Kauerauf, DHSS director, said "with great confidence" that the data proved there was lower transmission in counties with mask mandates.
Lisa Cox, spokesperson for DHSS, shared the emails with ABC 17, but said, "We do not have any official studies drawing conclusions solely from mask mandates being in place."
Four Missouri counties have mask mandates in place — St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County -- and the Missouri attorney general's office has active or pending lawsuits against each of them. The attorney general has also sued Columbia Public Schools over its mask mandate.
Chris Nuelle, Attorney General Eric Schmitt's press secretary, said the attorney general's office finds the conclusion of the study inaccurate because case rates were higher in masked counties before the time period shown in the graphs.
"We’ve been clear that Missourians should have the right to make their own decisions, and that government bureaucrats shouldn’t be mandating masks or vaccines," Nuelle said. "We will continue to fiercely litigate our lawsuits against mask mandates in Missouri."
A hearing in the St. Louis County lawsuit was rescheduled from Tuesday to next Thursday, Dec. 9, to provide time for attorneys to consider the impact of a recent Cole County ruling barring local health officials from issuing health mandates.
Check back for updates to this developing story and watch ABC 17 News at 6.