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Sultan: A long overdue response to an invite from Missouri's health director
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Sultan: A long overdue response to an invite from Missouri's health director

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Randall Williams

Dr. Randall Williams, director of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, received a flu vaccination on Sept. 25, 2020, at the Cole County Health Department.

(photo provided by the Department of Health and Senior Services)

A year ago, I received a handwritten note from Missouri’s health director, Dr. Randy Williams, inviting me to join his book club.

We had corresponded briefly once before: I had written a column criticizing his efforts to track the periods of women who had used Planned Parenthood services. He sent me a note responding to my story and dropped off a book about loving your enemies, which I read.

But in early March, when I received Williams’ book-club invitation, I said to my editor, “Why the heck is the state’s health director writing to me during a global pandemic?”

I didn’t use the word “heck.”

This was back in the early days of the pandemic, when the then-president was actively lying to the country about a virus that would eventually claim more than 500,000 American lives. Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, a loyal soldier of the now twice-impeached leader, didn’t seem worried about what was coming down the pike.

Last March, I had only recently become alarmed about the strange new virus. I had just visited friends in Northern California — one of whom is a doctor and a top public health official — and her words were still ringing in my ears when I read Williams’ note.

“Be prepared for disruptions to our normal way of life,” my friend had said. She advised me to stock up on masks, hand sanitizer and household supplies, and to cancel my travel plans for the immediate future.

That sounds so alarmist, I told her. I asked her if it was possible that students might miss school because of this virus.

She looked at me like I wasn’t quite getting it.

As the crisis unfolded, the fact that our state’s top health official had the time to invite me to a book club did not engender a great deal of confidence in how the state was going to respond to the threat. I decided not to reply until this virus stuff got under control.

Well, it’s been a year. Let’s see where we are.

Nearly 8,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Missouri.

Remember when COVID skeptics kept saying it was “no worse than the flu”? I had hoped I would hear Williams or Parson speak out more forcefully against that harmful lie. There were a number of other doozies that I heard constantly: The media won’t report on COVID after the election in November (false). There’s nothing we can do to stop it (false). Masks don’t work (false). Last but not least: It’s only killing the old and infirm (morally bankrupt — and false).

I wonder how many lives could have been saved and how much suffering averted if my state’s leaders had clearly, consistently and forcefully called out these dangerous lies. To be honest, I didn’t hold out much hope for the governor, but Williams graduated from medical school, which is a lot further than the governor or I got in our educations.

We saw extraordinary courage from some public health officials, who tried their best to protect their communities. That courage just didn’t seem to trickle up in Missouri.

Now, COVID cases are finally coming down, and there’s a light at the end of this tunnel. Getting as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible is the biggest challenge. Unfortunately, we’ve fared worse in that regard than many other states. The word I keep hearing from doctors and others familiar with the situation is “disaster.” About 6% of people in Missouri are fully vaccinated, according to the state’s vaccine data site.

Maybe Williams can help turn this ship around. This may seem too obvious, but how about setting up more mass vaccination events — especially in parts of the state where tens of thousands of people are on waiting lists? One St. Louis-area hospital system’s waitlist contains a staggering 330,000 people.

It’s interesting that Williams was concerned enough about women’s health to track their periods, but that concern didn't extend to the vaccine. Teachers, more than 75% of whom are women in Missouri, were not prioritized in our state like they are in others. Nor were people with autoimmune diseases, which disproportionately affect women.

We remember the urgency with which Parson called in the National Guard when there was violence during the protests after George Floyd was killed. Given the number of Missourians who have died from this pandemic, and that there have been nearly 500,000 cases, it would be great to see that same energy directed toward vaccinating people.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping things will be closer to normal by the fall.

Maybe we could celebrate with a good read if the book club offer still stands.

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