Missouri Gov. Mike Parson is clarifying comments he made in a radio interview in which he said children returning to school will come down with the coronavirus but will "get over it," remarks that drew criticism from several Democrats as well as the head of a state teachers union.


This comes as Missouri set another record in new virus cases Wednesday, with 1,301 confirmed cases and 16 deaths added to its rising tally.


The governor made the comments Friday during an interview on "The Marc Cox Morning Show" on 97.1 FM in St. Louis. Democratic State Auditor Nicole Galloway, Parson's likely opponent in the November general election, said on Twitter that the governor showed "stunning ignorance" about how COVID-19 affects children.


Missouri National Education Association President Phil Murray said Parson's comments showed "a callous disregard for the suffering of children and the safety of the parents, grandparents, educators, and students that will be put at risk if schools are reopened with improper plans and protections.


"When the Governor says that children are, 'gonna get over it' he forgets that some children won't. He forgets that some children will be left with life-long health problems and some children will lose their lives," Murray said in a statement Tuesday.


Parson sought to clarify his comments in a subsequent radio interview Tuesday, this time with Mark Reardon of KMOX Radio in St. Louis, and in a statement Wednesday to The Associated Press.


Parson told Reardon he "didn't do a good job of explaining" his point, but added that anyone implying that he doesn't care about children is a "sick individual."


"Everybody's trying to make politics out of it. Whatever," Parson said.


In the statement to the AP, Parson said he has been a "strong supporter of public education" throughout his career.


"I attended a public school. My children attended public school, and my grandchildren attended public school," Parson said. "Currently, my daughter is a public school teacher."


Parson's statement said the safety "of ALL Missouri students, educators, and school employees are of utmost important to me. Getting students back to school is a big concern for all of us."


In the Friday interview on 97.1 FM, Parson was stressing that need to reopen schools and the importance of in-person education.


"They're at the lowest risk possible," Parson said of children. "And if they do get COVID-19, which they will — and they will when they go to school — they're not going to the hospitals. They're not going to have to sit in doctor's offices. They're going to go home, and they're going to get over it."


In the KMOX interview, Parson said the point he was trying to make was, "We need to do everything we can to make it safe when they go back to school, and that we are ready when the day comes and somebody comes in and they test positive."


Several school districts this week announced their plans for the fall semester, which begins in about a month, with many planning in-person classes. The plans are complicated by a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases since Missouri reopened its economy in mid-June.


Missouri's other big teachers union, the Missouri State Teachers Association, said Wednesday it is urging Parson to direct an emergency rule allowing teachers to receive workers' compensation if they are diagnosed with the COVID-19 virus or are quarantined because of it. A similar rule was enacted in April for first responders.


"If districts choose to return to in-person school, we know school employees will be at an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. Our goal with this action is to provide additional protection for these employees," MSTA Executive Director Bruce Moe said.


Missouri’s record of 1,138 new cases set Tuesday was immediately broken when Wednesday’s numbers arrived from the state health department. The state’s 1,301 new cases are not exclusive to St. Louis and Kansas City either – cases were reported in 86 of Missouri’s 117 reporting districts.


"This virus is here, and we must continue to be proactive," Parson said during a press conference Wednesday.


FEDERAL MONEY


Parson's administration also announced plans on Wednesday to send federal CARES Act money to bolster the state's agriculture and mental health systems.


Missouri Agriculture Department Director Chris Chinn announced $20 million in new meat- and poultry-processing funding intended to help small operators with fewer than 200 employees.


"We're pleased to see prices and meat supplies start to return to normal," Chinn said, calling small meat and poultry processors "critical" to rural economies.


Parson touted 1,200 newly announced jobs tied to online pet retailer Chewy. The company, based in Florida and Massachusetts, plans to establish an 800,000-square-foot fulfillment center near Kansas City.


DHSS also said Wednesday on social media that the average age of cases in Missouri is declining as cases among young people rise. The average age of cases in the state is 42.


Parson also said Missouri continues to "accelerate" COVID-19 testing, urging counties to use the funding they've been given for testing and contact tracing by health departments.


"You received CARES Act funding early on," Parson said. "You need to utilize that funding when it comes to testing and contact tracing."


Parson, however, reiterated that he's against a statewide public masking order.


"I am not anti-mask," he said. "What I am is anti-mandates."


DATA COLLECTION DISRUPTED


Randall Williams, director of the state health department, said he agreed with Gov. Parson and noted that in more than 80 Missouri counties, COVID-19 has killed one or fewer people.


Williams said he expected the state's online COVID-19 dashboard to resume counting coronavirus hospitalizations in about a week. Hospitalization data collection was disrupted due to a White House order earlier this month.


The state reported 16 deaths on Wednesday, the most since 37 were reported on June 18. Missouri has now lost 1,159 people to the virus, with a total of 36,063 cases.


Parson said Missouri's hospital systems still have the capacity to treat COVID-19 infections and are "stable," and that the state "continues to receive good news" on the economy.


On Wednesday, free and voluntary testing was made available to members of the Missouri General Assembly and all who work in the capitol building in Jefferson City, the state health department announced in a news release.


Testing is not so easy to obtain in Boone County for the average citizen. A physician’s order is still required to be tested for COVID-19.


Columbia reported 26 new cases in Boone County Wednesday to mark 953 cases total. The number of active cases dropped, however, from 210 to 199.


FASTER TESTS?


Meanwhile, the Stowers Institute in Kansas City is developing what it says should be a faster, cheaper way to test for COVID-19.


"... the plan is to take components that others have developed and recombine them in a way so that the process works in a much more automated fashion so it works faster and cheaper with the same accuracy," Dr. David Chao, president and CEO of the Stowers Institute, told Jackson County legislators this week.


Stowers plans to let anyone with the capacity — expensive robots are needed but some facilities have them, Chao said — to use the new protocol for free. Legislators took action to help shield Stowers from liability if there were bad outcomes from others using its process.


Chao said 49 volunteers have been working on the project, at Stowers’ expense, since March. He said Stowers is about a month away from going to the federal Food and Drug Administration for emergency approval of the new protocol.


Currently COVID testing has bottlenecks, including the availability of reagents to process samples in the labs. Officials at Monday’s meeting said test results are taking up to two weeks to come back.


"We believe," Chao said, "that having an automated process like ours, which has a lot more capacity, would take away that line at the front of the process and allow samples to be returned much more quickly."


The Independence Examiner, Jim Salter of the Associated Press, Gregory J. Holman of the Springfield News-Leader and Gabriela Velasquez of the Tribune contributed.