"We aren't safe here."
That's your COVID-19 update for the University of Missouri-Columbia in a nutshell. The concise message was delivered August 31 by the headline on a somber editorial in The Maneater, MU's student newspaper.
It has only gotten worse since. I'm a proud alum of MU and a prouder one of The Maneater, but one needn't have any affiliation with the institution to be alarmed at what's taking place: COVID-19 remains at or near crisis levels at MU, in Boone County and in the state of Missouri.
As of Sunday, there were 562 active cases on campus according to MU's Show Me Renewal website which — as the newspaper noted — likely understates the total because it excludes cases reported externally. That's up from the 415 reported in the editorial, roughly 2.1 percent of the student body.
Missouri was cited by the White House Coronavirus Task Force — which has been social distancing from the media — as the seventh worst state in virus case rates as of September 6, according to KRCG-TV in Jefferson City, which obtained the unpublished information from the Center for Public Integrity.
That was unchanged from the previous week, when the report included a recommendation for a statewide mask mandate that Missouri Governor Mike Parson ignored.
The same report listed Boone County as the state's number one "hot spot." It also reported that Missouri had 150 new cases per 100,000 in the past week, which would be 70 percent higher than the national average of 88 new cases per 100,000.
But in a nation poised to cross the milestone of 200,000 dead Americans from the virus, people are numbed to the numbers. Stats are either processed or rejected upon immovable political lines.
That brings us back to Columbia. In a task force call to state and local leaders — again, not released to the public, but through a tape recording obtain by the Center for Public Integrity — Dr. Deborah Birx had the following advice to universities allowing students to return for the fall semester:
"Each university not only has to do entrance testing," Birx warned. "What we talked to every university about is being able to do surge testing. How are you going to do 5,000 samples in one day or 10,000 samples in one day?"
Apparently, the message either wasn't received by the administration of Chancellor Mun Choi or, as in the case of Parson, it was simply ignored. Back to The Maneater editorial, which wasn't referencing the task force, just offering the common sense of say, eighteen- to 21-year-olds:
"In regard to testing plans, it's no wonder Scientific American ranks university responses on a scale from MU to UIUC.
"Currently, the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign is testing every student on campus twice a week for free. Students are only permitted on campus after receiving negative results which are delivered within hours via the Safer Illinois app. Those who are not up-to-date on their mandatory testing or who receive positive test results are denied access to on-campus facilities. Additionally, UIUC has a total of 17 testing sites spread across campus in order to increase student accessibility.
"(MU) currently offers one public drive-thru testing site (and one) on-campus testing site. The latter is by appointment only.
"That's right. Not only does MU not require students to get tested for COVID-19, it's also failed to make on-site testing easily available for those living on campus. Though information was released about the on-campus site, there is no information about it on MU's COVID Testing website, making it difficult for students to figure out how and where to get tested. The inconvenience of testing on campus could very well end up the reason a symptomatic student endangers others."
My old school newspaper dismantled the Choi administration with a surgical precision unseen when I was writing editorials in that space. From poor communication at the outset, to failing to cancel Welcome Week traditions that involved unsafe gatherings, to a defective COVID-19 tracking system and beyond, the paper laid out how the campus administration has failed miserably.
I'd call it a clown car, but The Maneater didn't use immature language like that. In fact, the most stunning part of its takedown of the administration was how it left the distinct impression that the students are the grownups in the room in Columbia.
Consider this: It was the students writing in their newspaper who called out the administration for obsessing too much over student concerns in reporting cases: "Though the student body is entitled to its privacy, we feel that at least naming the location of an outbreak is a worthwhile safety measure."
And there was this amazing passage that one wouldn't necessarily expect to hear from college kids: "Despite informing the community that it would enforce disciplinary action toward students who knowingly defy COVID-19-related health and safety guidelines, MU has yet to keep its word."
The Maneater went on to lash the administration for failing to shut down dangerous behavior in sorority and fraternity houses "to release a statement or hold any of these groups accountable for refusing to social distance. As something that many anticipated as a potential safety issue from early on, it's difficult to believe that MU was not prepared to control the situation."
So, the students are scolding administrators for not keeping rowdy behavior under control at the university. Next up: Cats are chasing dogs in Columbia.
The scandalous nature of the situation has been fairly muted in the St. Louis media market, where we've been more preoccupied with Choi's bizarre conduct in publicly demanding loyalty and silence from faculty members last July at the home of the world's first journalism school.
Now, when I attended the university deep into the previous century, it was commonplace to stifle or muffle voices of student dissent. Faculty, not so much. But in the social-media age, Choi last week earned himself some humiliating headlines throughout the state by blocking certain students from his Twitter account.
This pathetic gesture was reported on a Tuesday and withdrawn, with tail firmly tucked between legs, just a couple days later when a First Amendment lawsuit against Choi almost filed itself.
And get this: In the very same week, it was announced on a Tuesday that students must wear masks even when walking outside by themselves. Two days later, after a collective "say what?" echoed throughout the state, that rule was rescinded.
Waiting for the next shoe to drop? It already did with a story documented by a leaked private recording from a July MU staff meeting. Here's what Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Bill Stackman told staff — citing Choi as the source — about how dissent would be handled:
"If you're not (in agreement), we still expect you to support the decision — or if you don't understand how we made that decision, ask. And if you don't know what we've explained, then just trust that we did the right thing."
Who reported this? You guessed it: The Maneater just last Friday. As an old person, I don't even feel qualified to end this column. Here's how the clear-eyed kids summed it up, in a deck to their original headline about being unsafe.
"Following the decision to send students back to campus this fall, MU's COVID-19 response has shown it's only a matter of time before something terrible happens."
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977. Contact him at [email protected] or catch him on Donnybrook at 7 p.m. on Thursdays on the Nine Network and St. Louis In the Know With Ray Hartmann from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday thru Friday on KTRS (550 AM).