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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Mike Parson and Dr. Randall Williams, right, held a news conference after a meeting Tuesday, March 3, 2020, with State of Emergency Management Agency officials, external stakeholders and Missouri Cabinet members at SEMA Headquarters. Williams is director of the Division of Health and Senior Services. Photo by Julie Smith / News Tribune.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Tuesday gathered cabinet members and members of the State Emergency Management Agency for a briefing on the state's response to the growing threat of a coronavirus outbreak.

The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected more than 90,000 people worldwide, and more than 100 cases have been confirmed in the United States. As of Tuesday, the infection had killed nine people in Washington state.

For more news about the COVID-19 coronavirus, https://www.newstribune.com/news/health/" style="color:#33AEFF">access the News Tribune's Health section

No cases have been detected in Missouri, Parson said during a news conference Tuesday with Dr. Randall Williams, director of the state Department of Health And Senior Services.

Parson and Williams held the conference following the briefing with cabinet members, intended to further preparation efforts.

"As governor, I have no greater responsibility than to keep all Missourians healthy and safe," Parson said.

Made up of rural and urban communities, the state and its people are diverse, he said.

"I want to assure you that we are doing all we can to meet these needs and help every community prepare for a potential coronavirus outbreak," Parson said. "Dr. Williams and the Department of Health and Senior Services have been very proactive in taking steps to prepare, and I have full confidence in his leadership on this issue."

DHSS has been preparing for a potential outbreak of the virus since late January, the state leaders said.

Coronaviruses make up a large family of viruses. Some cause illnesses in people, while others infect only animals. Rarely, animal coronaviruses have emerged to infect people and can spread between people. This is suspected to have happened for the virus that causes COVID-19. The current virus was first detected in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Early infections were widely linked to live animal markets, but the virus is now spreading from person to person.

In 80 percent of cases the illness is mild, but in many it can cause shortness of breath and severe respiratory illness.

The CDC has developed a laboratory test kit for severe acute respiratory syndromes that may be sent to qualified state public health labs. Missouri labs were recently approved to process the tests.

However, the test is still limited by the number of kits available, Williams said.

At this point, tests are only being administered to people who meet the CDC criteria for it — having fever, severe lower respiratory illness and or shortness of breath; and having traveled to affected geographic areas within 14 days of symptoms onset or had close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 patient. People with fever and severe acute lower respiratory illnesses (such as pneumonia) requiring hospitalization and without alternative diagnoses (like influenza) may not need to show a potential source of exposure to be tested.

"We hope to very rapidly fill out the capability to all the state labs to do the tests on a much broader standard," Williams said. "At this point, because of a lack of reagents (solutions that react to the virus), we're still not there. So we're still being judicious on who we test."

So far, the state has tested fewer than 15 people.

"The most important thing we've done is strategically aligned our federal partners with our state partners and all of our health care systems," Williams said. "We have great communication with our federal partners."

Missouri also has 70 hospitals equipped and prepared to treat COVID-19 patients, he said. St. Mary's Hospital and Capital Region Medical Center, both in Jefferson City, are among those hospitals, said Lisa Cox, DHSS public information officer.

The state is in constant communication with federal health officials, Williams said.

Governors expect the federal government will be pushing out $7.4 billion to assist with the response to the disease.

"(Federal officials') message has been loud and clear: 'Push that money out to local health directors,'" Williams said.

Alex Azar, U.S. secretary of Health and Human Services, has been very focused on making sure everybody knows who can do what, Williams said.

The state has "continuity of operations" plans in place, based on plans developed for a pandemic flu.

Parson said he will meet with statewide elected officials today to brief them on the state's preparations.

States on the nation's coasts are more likely to feel economic impacts from the illness than those in the Midwest, he said.

People are frightened of the unknown, Parson said.

Leaders need to communicate well with the state's residents, he said.

"We need to make sure they know where to go or what to do in case this situation should occur," he said.

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