Missouri House cancels work as lawmakers sickened with virus

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) — The Missouri House canceled work next week because of a rising number of coronavirus cases in the Capitol.

“Due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases in the building, we are exercising an abundance of caution to protect members, staff, and visitors by canceling session next week,” top Republican representatives said in a joint statement released late Thursday.

Lawmakers already were set to off work Monday because of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and the House speaker's office previously planned on either canceling or holding a limited session Wednesday over security concerns about potential Capitol protests related to Joe Biden's presidential inauguration.

Public Safety Director Sandra Karsten tested positive for COVID-19 via a rapid test after meeting with lawmakers this week to discuss safety precautions, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday.

Spokesman Mike O'Connell told the newspaper that she was waiting for results from the more-accurate PCR test and working from home. O'Connell said Karsten wore a mask and practiced social distancing while at the Capitol.

House leaders didn’t specify how many lawmakers and staffers are ill, but at least one lawmaker has tested positive and three others are quarantining.

Eleven other lawmakers confirmed to The Associated Press that they tested positive for the coronavirus at some point last year.

A spokesman for Senate Republican leaders said that chamber still plans on working next week. House leaders plan to return to work the week of Jan. 25.

Statewide, at least 15,519 people were sickened by the virus in the past week, according to the state health department. That's about 2,217 newly reported cases per day.

At least 6,229 deaths in Missouri have been attributed to the virus.

Republican Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday expanded eligibility for the coronavirus vaccine to firefighters, police and health care staff who don't interact with patients. The administration planned to allow vaccinations beginning Monday for people ages 65 and older and those with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of getting seriously.

Missouri currently does not have enough vaccines for those groups, but Parson's administration expanded eligibility so the state is prepared to begin providing vaccinations as soon as it receives more doses.

Missouri officials expected to get more doses from the federal government next week, but it's unclear if that will happen. Officials in other states raised concerns Friday that the shipments they expected won’t be coming through.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said there may be confusion over expectations, but he said there has been no reduction in doses shipped to states.

“We continue to urge our federal partners to fulfill their commitment to allocate additional supplies of vaccine into Missouri to be provided to our population,'' Parson spokeswoman Kelli Jones said in a statement. ”Distribution plans will continue to be based upon available supply."

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Associated Press reporter David A. Lieb contributed to this report from Jefferson City, Missouri.