Hartmann: Missouri's COVID Crisis Takes a Sharp Turn for the Worse

A health-care worker takes information from people waiting on a COVID-19 test.
A health-care worker takes information from people waiting on a COVID-19 test. DOYLE MURPHY
Missouri is sick and getting sicker. Thanks in no small part to the abject failure of its state government, it has cracked into some top ten national rankings in the past week that nobody wants.

Missouri has risen to number five among states in hospitalizations per capita for COVID-19 and number ten in the percentage of positivity cases for the virus, as of Sunday. The statistics are updated daily on a database maintained at the Washington Post.

The positivity rate only reflects the proportion of tested people who show up positive for COVID-19, and since Missouri continues to lag nationally in the amount of testing it does, the gravity of the situation may be worse than it appears. Speaking of lagging, the state health department dashboard on the pandemic is so slow and unreliable that some health officials fear the extent of the spread — and even deaths — may be understated in Missouri.

The hospitals aren’t filling up with statistics, however. They are overrun with human beings who are at best suffering gravely from the effects of a pandemic that is spiking far worse in Missouri than in the large majority of other states. That is not a coincidence.

Missouri is one of only thirteen states whose governors have declined to issue statewide mask mandates for the virus. Governor Mike Parson hasn’t just declined; he has ignored repeated, emotional pleas from medical and public-health officials to take this simple step that has been scientifically established to matter, notwithstanding some denial among cult worshippers.

Of the thirteen states in the dubious no-mandate club, five of them are in the top ten for positivity rates today, including Idaho and South Dakota at numbers one and two. There’s not a direct correlation between this dereliction of duty and the spread of COVID-19, but to the extent state governments can mitigate the pandemic, inaction has not proven all that effective.

That said, the most scandalous part of Parson’s inaction extends beyond the political cowardice on mask policy. Perhaps the greatest outrage is the state’s unconscionable failure to distribute nearly $900 million in federal CARES Act relief funds that have literally been sitting undistributed since last spring, while Missourians get sick and die.

“We gave the governor every authority in May to spend all of the CARES money Missouri received, which was $2.2 billion,” state Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood, says. After dispensing $1.3 billion back then, the state has simply failed to do its job.

Whatever disagreements there have been about Parson’s authority to spend have not been a partisan issue between the governor and his Democratic opposition. As early as March, it was Parson’s own Republican legislative caucus that astoundingly refused to trust the administration of their own political party to spend COVID-19 relief funds responsibility. The Democrats were fine with deferring to Parson given the nature of the emergency.

There is some dispute about the wording of the spending authorization, but Parson called a parade of special legislative sessions over the summer, any one of which could have been used to send out needed money. Instead, Parson chose to choreograph the sessions for election-year demagoguery in his campaign for governor. So he was still seeking spending approval as recently as last week, when the Senate passed a bill that still awaits his signature.

Lavender, known across the aisle as perhaps the most informed student of the budget process in the legislature, isn’t buying any of that. In her waning days there — having lost a state senate bid to Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Neanderthal — Lavender says Parson is uninformed at best.

“We in the General Assembly passed a budget that included all he needed — in every way he could have wanted to spend it,” Lavender says. “It does beg the question of why he came back with a different bill in November.”

When Lavender refers to November, it’s the part that came after November 3, when Parson won election as governor against state Auditor Nicole Galloway.

Even if Parson received a mandate for malfeasance, it has proven disastrous for so many people, in so many ways. Among those are struggling business owners — especially proprietors of bars and restaurants — who are teetering on losing their livelihoods in the face of health restrictions imposed by local officials hung out to dry by the governor.

From the outset of the pandemic, Parson was very clear about his intention to pass the buck to local officials. Here’s how one of his initial orders laid out his hands-off philosophy:

“Missouri is a diverse state with diverse communities. A core principle of Missouri government is that we embrace local-level decision making tailored to each community’s unique needs,” it read, before giving some meaningless lip service to the state setting “baseline standards” that never were more than a suggestion.

Setting aside the irony that the Republicans stubbornly refuse to respect “each community’s needs” on such matters as gun-control or minimum-wage policy — or even law enforcement if the local prosecutor is a certain type of Black person — the damage done by Parson’s cowardice has been immeasurable. Throughout the state, local city and county elected leaders and public-health officials have been left to navigate difficult decisions rendered nearly impossible by the lack of state leadership.

In St. Louis County, for example, County Executive Sam Page and his health officials have taken a harder-line approach to restricting indoor dining than the city and neighboring counties — actions that might be debatable but are motivated by legitimate concerns for the health and lives of residents. It’s understandable that local bars and restaurants are angrily pushing back, but in the absence of a uniform, science-driven set of health standards, local officials are in a no-win situation.

It’s hardly a St. Louis problem. Across the state, at least a dozen health department officials have resigned — under great stress and even threats of violence — as they’ve tried to wrestle with the tough decisions ducked by state government. They also have to fear retribution in their budgets should they anger county commissioners, many of whom are driven by national voices of COVID denial.

Still, with unspeakable chutzpah, Republicans are trying to champion the cause of the very business owners they have injured beyond recognition by their politically driven failure at the state level. The likes of Koenig and Senators Bob Onder and Bill Eigel of St. Charles County are raging about health measures being taken and attacking Page, in particular, as a tyrant.

It would make good sense for Onder, Eigel and Koenig — the unfunny Three Stooges of the Missouri Senate from our region — to spend a little time as candy stripers at some of the traumatized local hospitals. They talk a good game in other contexts about valuing life. Maybe they can get a front-line look at what their political party has wrought in human terms.

These are horrible times for everyone. The best of state governments are struggling to cope, largely because of the atrocious failure at the national level of the exiting administration to face hard choices. When you have one of the worst of state governments, it’s beyond horrible. It’s sick.

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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