Experts aren’t clear why the coronavirus is striking the state’s two largest metropolitan areas so differently, although the geography of the areas might provide a clue.
Johns Hopkins University reported 483 deaths and 9,700 cases in Missouri as of Saturday, with the bulk of them in the St. Louis region. As of late the week, 466 had died in the St. Louis area, compared to 157 in greater Kansas City, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
The victims of the St. Louis region’s outbreak include 85-year-old Bill Olwig and 83-year-old Patricia Olwig, whose maiden name was Abeln. They had been married nearly 61 years when they died less than an hour apart this month from COVID-19 complications.
“It’s devastating,” their son, Pat, said. “And I know they’re just this one small part of this thing that’s hitting people all over the world.”
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up after two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The St. Louis region is home to about 30% more people, which isn’t enough to account for the lopsided totals. The discrepancy is all the more confusing, according to some experts, because the timeline of each region’s coronavirus outbreaks and response actions seemed to unfold — at least initially — in such similar fashion.
“The ingredients don’t seem all that different, from what I can glean,” said Chris Prener, a sociologist at Saint Louis University who has closely tracked regional data on the virus. He has wondered about the imbalance between the two similarly sized cities. “It’s a great question, and one I wish I had an answer to.”
One theory, according to some experts, is that the St. Louis community has a higher population density and simply had more of the virus circulating undetected at the time shutdowns clicked into place. Kansas City also is better shielded from initial hot spots by a larger geographic buffer.
“I don’t think I would’ve done anything differently than what they’ve done,” Dr. Rex Archer, the director of Kansas City, Missouri’s health department, said of the St. Louis metro response. “I think the difference was that there were more undetected cases in St. Louis than we had, when we put in our social-distancing, stay-at-home orders. At least in Kansas City, Missouri, we were very late in getting our first death. Our cases were extremely low when they were building in other places.”
The question is now whether the discrepancies will remain as the communities prepare to reopen, with restrictions. St. Louis County Executive Sam Page and St. Louis City Mayor Lyda Krewson will allow some businesses to open May 18, but that does not include gyms.
The restrictions led the owners of a gym and shuttered antique store to sue to reopen. But a district court judge on Friday denied their request for a temporary restraining order, the Post-Dispatch reported.