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Local officials initially believed 'low risk' from COVID-19

Internal emails obtained by News-Press NOW show the City of St. Joseph’s reaction to the COVID-19 outbreak, including the belief that the public wouldn’t comply with an order closing outdoor recreation areas.

The emails were obtained as part of an open records request and date back to Feb. 6, 2020.

“Keep in mind, the parks department does not have enforcement staff to patrol the parks or outdoor facilities to monitor so the closure would be a public announcement, signage and trusting people will comply,” Chuck Kempf, the St. Joseph parks director, said in an April 11 email. “I can assure you they will not as people have already started climbing the fences at Bode basketball courts.”

According to a media briefing at the time, Buchanan County had just under 20 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with one death. As of Aug. 28, the county has 1,247 cases and 10 deaths.

In an early reference to the coronavirus, dated Feb. 27, Buchanan County Emergency Management Coordinator Bill Brinton provided various local officials with a “sit rep” about the virus.

One of the email’s attachments, a letter from Missouri’s state emergency management agency, said, “all the indications are that the risks to citizens of the United States are low.”

Kempf’s email was in response to a thread started by Councilman Marty Novak, who shared a picture of packed tennis courts with other city council members and city staff.

“This is blowing up on Facebook,” Novak said at the time. Outdoor facilities were eventually closed on March 20, but they reopened in May.

In response to an email from a concerned citizen about outdoor trails, Councilman Brian Myers said such orders are difficult to enforce.

“We can make strong recommendations, but we do not have the staffing to enforce the business closures, let alone enforcing anything on people who are on trails and out of the line of sight,” Myers wrote in an April 21 email.

Nine days prior to the April 11 email about the tennis courts, city staff engaged in a conversation with Mayor Bill McMurray about enforcement of his order closing all but essential businesses.

“We don’t have the resources to chase vengeance complaints that cannot be supported by some level of baseline facts,” Bryan Carter, the city’s attorney, wrote in an email.

McMurray told a lawyer representing several companies that claimed to be essential that the city’s response had “not been overzealous.”

In an April 22 email, when Buchanan County had 38 total cases per health department data, Councilman P.J. Kovac emailed McMurray a link to an article about Sweden’s “herd immunity” strategy to combat COVID-19.

“That didn’t work so well in New York!” McMurray replied.

“The virus won’t end until it runs its course (sic) the population. Closing businesses will only make it last longer,” Kovac wrote.

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City prepares for possible vaccine

The St. Joseph City Council is considering funding for equipment needed to distribute a COVID-19 vaccine once one becomes available.

The City Council saw a first reading this week on an ordinance that would execute an Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity CARES Contract with the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services in the amount of $71,150. Those funds would pay for an additional contact tracer who will call those who may have had contact with someone who has the virus and help trace the infection to a source.

The money also could be used for equipment for contact tracers and additional equipment to be used when and if a vaccine is ready to be administered communitywide.

“That’s part of the funding as well, that we are purchasing syringes and needles so that when a vaccine is made available we have the ancillary supplies ready to go,” Health Department Director Debra Bradley said.

She said the city already has put in the order in anticipation of the funds to stay ahead of the demand for such supplies. During the early phases of the pandemic, many communities were ordering personal protective equipment and items became limited.

Several potential vaccines are being tested, but none have been deemed safe and effective at this time. As such, a plan to distribute the vaccine has not yet been explored.

However, Bradley said the 2009 H1N1 pandemic saw vaccines first given to pregnant women, first responders and medical staff. She said a similar model could be followed for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“They talked about this year, with the coronavirus, health-care workers, first responders,” Bradley said. “They’ve also had discussions about hot spots, like geographical hot spots, and trying to decide ‘if this community is a hot spot then maybe we need to push the vaccine in that community, but this one’s not so we’re going to hold off on sending them vaccines just yet.’”

She said an effective vaccine would help with herd immunity, but only if enough people are willing to get it.

“There are going to be some people who, for health reasons, just can’t get it,” Bradley said. “Same thing with the flu vaccine, there are some people who just can’t get it. If we can get the majority of the population to take a vaccine, then by nature of herd immunity it protects people who can’t get the vaccine.”

Some of the funds from this contract would be used to hire an additional contact tracer. Last month, a $193,000 item was approved by the council to hire five contact tracers as temporary employees. Buchanan County will reimburse the city for those hires through CARES Act funds it received.

An additional tracer already has been hired in anticipation of the funds awarded through the state health department.

“We had four individuals who started the first part of July and they are still with us and doing a fantastic job, I might add,” Bradley said. “On Monday of this week we just added two more. The contract bill that’s up for passage, we did put a little bit of money in there to pay for contact tracers.”

The contract could provide PPE and laptops for the tracers, who currently only are using a notepad and pen, according to Bradley.

The St. Joseph Health Department still recommends social distancing and hygienic practices as the most effective way to stop the spread of the virus.

“As always, I like to continue to encourage people to keep their distance from others, only go out if they need to, if they go out, please wear a face covering or a mask so that you can protect your family friends and community, because sometimes you just don’t know if you’re carrying the virus,” Bradley said.

The council is scheduled to vote on the funding at its Sept. 8 meeting, which will be uncharacteristically on a Tuesday due to the Labor Day holiday.

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Second man charged for murder of 2-year-old Raelynn Craig

A second man has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of a 2-year-old girl earlier this month in St. Joseph.

Caimon Ramone Stillman, 21, of St. Joseph has been charged in connection with the fatal drive-by shooting of Raelynn Craig on Aug. 9. He was charged late Thursday, the same day as another defendant in the case, 20-year-old Marcain R. Kimbrough-Ballard. Both men are said to have fired shots into a silver Dodge Caliber where Craig was a passenger.

According to a probable cause statement, Stillman and Kimbrough-Ballard were passengers in a black Hyundai Elantra when they allegedly opened fire on the Dodge Caliber, killing 2-year-old Craig and injuring two others.

According to police, witnesses and surveillance video were able to provide the identities of Stillman and Kimbrough-Ballard as passengers in the black vehicle who fired shots at the victims in the silver vehicle.

The shooting occurred on Aug. 9 near 20th and Messanie streets.

A warrant for Stillman’s arrest was approved on Friday. As of Friday afternoon, Stillman was not in police custody.

Kimbrough-Ballard is in police custody and is scheduled for arraignment on Monday, Aug. 31.

A judge has denied bond for both men.

Police declined to comment on the possible whereabouts of Stillman and said there are still active components to the investigation.

News-Press NOW asked Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Michelle Davidson, who brought the charges against both men, about the status of the person driving the black vehicle that the defendants were in. She said she was unable to comment. Davidson said Stillman and Kimbrough-Ballard are the only people charged in the fatal shooting at this time.