Hartmann: Missouri Is Proudly Uneducated on Vaccinating Teachers

A public school employee in Iowa receives a COVID-19 vaccine.
A public school employee in Iowa receives a COVID-19 vaccine. PHIL ROEDER/FLICKR

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is continuing to honor its solemn commitment to keeping science out of politics with respect to public health in the state.

Dr. Randall Williams, DHSS minister of propaganda, proudly announced last week that there's no way Missouri will join most of the nation in giving higher priority to vaccinating teachers. Or as his boss, Governor Mike Parson, might put it: "Hell no, we ain't giving shots to the dang teachers' unions as long as there are real Missourans who want to turn those shots down!"

Most of the nation is debating whether to wait to open schools until all teachers are vaccinated. Some say yes, while others — such as Dr. Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — argue that schools can reopen without full vaccinations, but only if teachers are moved up the vaccine list as essential workers.

But Parson and Williams aren't having any part of that. Instead, they're doubling down on right-wing political talking points that denigrate teachers as greedy union members. This approach would qualify as pathetic even if neighboring Illinois and Kansas were not vaccinating their teachers as essential workers. Well, they are.

This isn't any more complicated than wearing a mask in a pandemic. (In fairness, DHSS firmly believes Missouri residents should do that if they want to.) But, in the absence of the erstwhile chancellor of Trump University, abject stupidity in the name of wingnut politics is now a matter left to the states.

Say this for Parson, his administration and the Republican-owned state legislature: They are consistent. Under their leadership, such that it is, Missouri ranks dead last in America — by a rather shocking margin — in per-person public-health spending.

At virtually every moment since the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging the nation, Missouri has passionately pursued a race to the bottom among states in either denying or ignoring the public-health crisis. Remember how it started here? We covered it almost a year ago in this space:

"On March 19, fully eight days after the World Health Organization issued its official declaration that COVID-19 was a global pandemic, Parson uttered these astonishing words:

'I don't think there is a doomsday for the state of Missouri or the United States over COVID-19,' Parson told the Kansas City Star. 'It's something we have to be concerned with. But to try to put that into a fear category is wrong. This is like viruses we've dealt with before.

'It's going to take us some time to be able to treat that virus and come up with a vaccine at some point,' Parson said. 'But if people will follow simple instructions, they can sure slow the process down of COVID-19.'"

It has been pretty much downhill since then. Those prescient words about not allowing COVID-19 to fall into the "fear category" were followed by scandalous acts of ignorance or ineptitude.

From Parson's early refusal to close schools when virtually all states had (individual Missouri schools and school districts did it for themselves), to refusing to institute a mask mandate, to prohibiting state enforcement of public-health laws, to slow-walking COVID-19 relief to communities, to DHSS's tragically inept information systems, to the current gross incompetence and unfairness in vaccine distribution — that's a partial list — Parson and his DHSS have placed politics above public health at every turn.

In Williams' case, it's actually impressive that the scandal of his COVID-19 failure has approached his previous claim to fame, which is to have maintained a spreadsheet of the menstrual cycles of women who went to Planned Parenthood. It's not every day you can match that sort of creepiness.

Williams shamelessly promoted a false choice in defending the state's inaction on elevating the priority of teachers, as it should be doing.

"Those people who are more likely to get sick, and bluntly, to pass away if they get COVID, continue to be the governor's focus and my focus and all of our focus," Williams said during Parson's weekly media briefing.

"So the answer is that's what's guiding us and will continue to guide us."

On the positive side, this is one of the first times Parson and Williams have shown an active interest in the sick and dying during the pandemic. So there's progress. In proclaiming his unwillingness to move teachers up from their current status as Phase 1B Tier 3, Williams said the goal was to begin vaccinating them in mid-to-late April.

If DHSS's track record means anything, teachers will be lucky to have shots in arms by next fall. Even if one accepts the CDC view that vaccinating all teachers is not a prerequisite for opening schools, it defies common sense to prioritize school opening and not prioritize giving vaccines to teachers at the same time.

But at Parson's direction, DHSS remains far more interested in politics than sound policy as it pertains to the pandemic. There's a welcoming audience for this attitude in Missouri — especially outstate in rural areas — as the governor's landslide victory last November would attest. That doesn't make it right, and Parson's failure to make unpopular choices is the very definition of weak leadership.

The consequences are obvious. Williams is enthusiastic about promoting the fact that teachers won't be moved up in the line. He's not so forthcoming about subjects such as mask-wearing mandates and protective gear for teachers and students or organizing classrooms in smaller pods or other direct public-health measures.

It's this precise mentality that has made Missouri a follower throughout the pandemic. The falsehood that personal freedom and sound public-health policy are mutually exclusive has been a hallmark of the Parson administration.

By defying the science and rejecting the advice of national health experts on everything from mask mandates to prioritizing vaccines for teachers, the DHSS strategy is beyond irresponsible. It exposes a total lack of passion and imagination on the part of state health officials in addressing the largest health crisis in a century.

And it's a bit ironic. You'd think that when it comes to strategies for reopening schools, Missouri's teachers and students would be entitled to more than an uneducated guess.

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).

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