Immersed in one pandemic, Dr. Alex Garza saw the second one coming.
In December, long before he was picked to head the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, Garza, one of the nation’s leading experts on public health and emergency medicine, wrote this in the journal of the Catholic Health Association:
“In many ways, however, infectious diseases are similar to gun violence. They affect the poor and vulnerable disproportionately and can span from small intense episodes, such as a case of meningitis or sepsis, to full-blown disasters, such as the H1N1 pandemic or recent Ebola virus outbreaks.”
Then COVID-19 arrived and Garza found himself in the perfect storm.
Nearly every day for months, he’s stood before the podium explaining the often grim statistics of the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the St. Louis region, most recently with the infection count breaking records many days. Behind the scenes, he’s advising civic and political leaders like Mayor Lyda Krewson and County Executive Sam Page and other health officials who have to make the daily unpopular choices to try to stem the tide of the once flattening but now rising curve of the pandemic.
Lately those decisions — shutting down youth sports and preparing for most public schools to not fully open in the fall — are unpopular with a segment of society. As a father of teenagers who want to go to school and participate in youth sports, I understand the emotions.
But sadly, we are where we are because in the Venn diagram of this pandemic, many of the same people trying to make political points about the opening or closing of schools or the playing or suspending of youth sports are the same folks who early in the pandemic followed the advice of President Donald Trump and many of his fellow Republicans by acting like this was no big deal, a hoax, the flu. Masks? What masks. Open the economy now!
So it is with St. Louis County Councilman Tim Fitch. Last week, on social media, the Republican went after Garza, mimicking those in the White House who tried to turn Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s epidemiologist-in-chief, into a lightning rod for criticism, rather than the voice of reason he has been.
“Dr. Alex Garza appears to be a very qualified physician,” Fitch wrote on Twitter. “He’s also a political appointee of Sam Page. Dr. Garza’s wife was a staffer for Claire McCaskill and was under consideration for a paid post in the Page administration. #QuestionEverything.”
Ah yes, he has ties to Democrats, so he can’t possibly be telling the truth. Where have we seen this playbook before?
To be clear, Garza was appointed to lead the pandemic task force not by Page but by his fellow medical professionals. But, yes, he sits on a county jail oversight committee, and was appointed by Page to the dormant Board of Freeholders. So, too, by the way, was local businessman Mark Mantovani, who is now running for county executive in the Aug. 4 Democratic primary against Page, along with county Assessor Jake Zimmerman and Jamie Tolliver.
That’s the context here. Fitch, a Page rival, is trying to use COVID-19 to make political points.
Sadly, that will do absolutely nothing to flatten the curve, as too many people follow his lead, and some of those people gather in groups too large, and refuse to wear masks or follow health guidance, and the pandemic rages. Fitch implies, with no evidence, that Garza’s advice should be questioned because he has “tentacles attached to Sam Page.”
If we’re going to be in the business of questioning tentacles in a pandemic, how about Fitch’s? In his day job, well, one of his day jobs, he works for Emerson, whose CEO, David Farr, is a member of one of the task forces Trump announced as the “Opening Our Country Council” in April, when the pandemic was still raging and too many governors pushed too quickly to ignore the advice of people like Garza and open the country up too rapidly.
Fitch had his own such “Reopen St. Louis County” plan which he and his fellow Republicans pushed in April. The lessons of opening too early, of not wearing masks, of not trying hard enough to properly social distance, are being learned the hard way now, as the curve heads the wrong direction and schoolhouse doors remain, mostly, closed.
Fitch says he’s never talked to Farr about the pandemic. I take him at his word.
Garza, for what it’s worth, declined to comment on Fitch’s attempt to draw a political inference where there shouldn’t be one. He’s too busy trying to flatten a curve that would look a lot better if elected leaders did more listening to the experts and less playing to the understandably frustrated crowd.