In this July 13, 2021, file photo, Missouri Gov. Mike Parson answers media's questions in Kansas City, Missouri. Credit: Shelly Yang / The Kansas City Star via AP

ST. LOUIS — Missouri Gov. Mike Parson on Thursday said a news story that reported his office had buried a study showing mask mandates work was “purposefully misleading.”

Parson issued a statement via social media late Thursday, a day after the story was released by the Missouri Independent.

The governor said the reporter, Rudi Keller, “handpicked information from a Sunshine request then took the data out of context in order to fit his narrative.”

Parson also attacked Keller personally, calling him a “political blogger” pretending to be a journalist. According to Keller’s biography, he has been a journalist for 30 years — 22 of them spent covering Missouri government and politics — and served as news editor of the Columbia Daily Tribune. He joined the online Missouri Independent when it launched over a year ago as the 19th news outlet by States Newsroom, a national nonprofit supported by grants and donations.

Keller wrote Wednesday’s story along with two data journalists with The Documenting COVID-19 project, which is supported by Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation.

The reporters found that Gov. Mike Parson’s office had requested an analysis on the effectiveness of mask mandates. The request was made in a Nov. 1 email by Alex Tuttle, Parson’s liaison to the health department.

“Can you provide examples of local mandates and how those mandates impacted the spread of COVID in those areas?” Tuttle wrote.

The department completed the analysis two days later.

It consists of two charts: one that compared the infection rates in St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City and Jackson County with the rest of the state, and another that compared death rates.

The four jurisdictions imposed mask mandates in late July and early August during a surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the delta variant.

The comparison showed infection rates in “masked” jurisdictions were higher than the rest of the state in the six weeks prior to the emergence of the delta variant. But then that changed.

The data show that, from the end of April to the end of October, jurisdictions with mask mandates experienced an average of 15.8 cases per day for every 100,000 residents compared with 21.7 cases per day for every 100,000 residents in “unmasked” communities.

The analysis was done by Nathan Koffarnous, assistant bureau chief in DHSS’s Bureau of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention, the emails show. Koffarnous emailed the charts on Nov. 3 to the new state health director, Donald Kauerauf, with the caveat: “Please note that there are many outside factors that we can’t account for here.”

Kauerauf responded that he agreed “there are ‘lots’ of variables that must be considered before we can definitively assess the impact of wearing a mask” during the delta wave.

“However, I think we can say with great confidence reviewing the public health literature and then looking at the results in your study, that communities where masks were required had a lower positivity rate per 100,000 and experienced lower death rates,” Kauerauf wrote.

Kauerauf immediately forwarded the charts and his conclusion to Tuttle in the governor’s office.

The analysis was never included in material the health department prepared for Cabinet meetings, the Independent reported. Neither the health department nor Parson’s office responded to the news organization’s requests for comment asking why the report was not shared publicly.

Parson has said he is against mask mandates, which he reiterated Thursday: “If you want to wear a mask, wear one. However, I do not support government issued mask mandates that infringe on our personal liberties.”

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has sued St. Louis, St. Louis County, Kansas City, Jackson County and Columbia Public Schools over their mask mandates saying they are “not supported by the data or the science.”

In Parson’s response to the Independent’s story, he maintained, “There is no definite evidence that proves mandates solely saved lives and prevented COVID-19 infections in Missouri’s biggest cities.”

The governor said the emails between his office and the health department noted that the mask mandate analysis did not account for variables such as health care access, testing rates and vaccination rates among jurisdictions.

Parson said these variables “were left out of the article.” The article, however, did state that health department data alone can’t explain the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of mask mandates, without a fuller analysis of vaccination rates and behavior.

The article also quoted a spokesman from Schmitt’s office questioning the results of the health department’s analysis.

In a request for a response to Parson’s attacks on the story and the reporter, Missouri Independent Editor-in-Chief Jason Hancock said in an email: “We requested comment from the governor’s office Tuesday afternoon. We did so again on Wednesday, hours before we published our story. The governor had ample opportunity to respond. We stand by our reporting.”

Enbal Shacham, a professor and researcher at St. Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice, said even though the health department’s analysis did not account for other variables such as vaccination rates, the results are valid because the analysis was done when infection rates were high across the entire state.

“I think the finding is still the same,” Shacham said. “It wouldn’t undermine the results.”

Last year, before vaccines were available, Shacham released a study using the exact same case rate comparison among St. Louis-area counties that did and did not have mask mandates.

She and her colleagues showed July 2020 mask mandates in St. Louis and St. Louis County quickly and dramatically slowed infection rates. After three weeks, the average daily growth rate of coronavirus cases was 44 percent lower than in Franklin, St. Charles and Jefferson counties without the policy. And after 12 weeks, it was still 40 percent lower. The trend held when they last looked at rates in January, she said.

Her study has been submitted for publication in an academic journal, and is undergoing review.

Story by Michele Munz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch.