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Tony's Take

Messenger: Schools close, hospitals need help, while Missouri Gov. Parson, AG Schmitt ignore pandemic reality

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Schmitt and Parson

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, left, and Missouri Gov. Mike Parson. 

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Things were quiet at Kickapoo High School on Wednesday morning. The parking lot was nearly empty. There were no teachers, no students at school. That’s because the omicron variant of COVID-19 has swept through southwest Missouri like much of the state. Springfield Public Schools, the largest district in Missouri, canceled classes for the rest of the week, with about 20% of its teachers, students and administrators home sick or on quarantine.

That’s where Steve Edwards was, too — home, on quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. It’s not where the CEO of CoxHealth wanted to be. His youngest daughter, a student in the Springfield Public Schools, was home, too.

It was predictable — too predictable — that school districts would end up having to close their doors as the highly contagious variant swept through a state with low vaccination rates, few mask mandates in place and an attorney general waging war on any governmental body that tries to protect its constituents from the deaths that are happening far too often two years into the pandemic.

“The most important thing we can do is keep our kids in school, and there are ways to do that,” Edwards told me, via Zoom on Wednesday, even though I was just a few miles away. What are those ways? High vaccination rates, mask wearing, social distancing, contact tracing and quarantining, all things that Eric Schmitt, the Republican attorney general who is using the pandemic as fuel for a U.S. Senate race, is battling. He threatens to file lawsuits against any school district that issues the sort of mandated mitigation efforts that the scientists are recommending to keep schools open.

“It is completely predictable,” that schools would shut down, Edwards said. Nearby, schools in Ozark, Missouri, shut down for a day to prepare to switch to remote learning for a bit; public schools in Willard also transitioned to remote learning. “It was so predictable that we had our day care set up to take our employees’ kids, anticipating that the schools would have to shut down.”

More than 100 employees at CoxHealth — where, just like in hospitals in St. Louis, staffing has become more difficult as the omicron variant spreads — took advantage of the makeshift day care center the hospital had set up overnight.

For Edwards — who is vaccinated and boosted, and thus, had merely cold symptoms when he tested positive — this slog has put him in an uncomfortable place. He has become one of the voices of reason, using his perch on social media and elsewhere to plead with Gov. Mike Parson and Schmitt and other Republican state leaders to work with health care workers to battle the pandemic.

Instead, it feels like he is often doing battle with those leaders. It’s a difficult spot for Edwards.

“I’m introverted,” he says. “I don’t like attention. It seemed to be the only way we could protect our community and to protect our staff. If it’s a crisis, a leader has to step forward.”

This month, there have been 50 deaths at CoxHealth hospitals. All of the deaths were among unvaccinated people, many of whom were just plain belligerent toward the health care workers who were trying to save their lives.

“Every person dying in our ICU is unvaccinated, and they were given wrong information,” Edwards says. “This is my hometown. I grew up here. The people getting sick and dying because of misinformation, I know.”

Edwards hopes that the omicron variant will dissipate as quickly as it rose. But case numbers in Springfield were still hitting record highs this week. In his hospital system, there were 896 positive cases on Tuesday. The highest daily positive count during the delta wave was 183.

“We’ve been setting a record nearly every day for the past two weeks,” Edwards said. “It’s still growing.”

On the day we spoke, Schmitt lost his latest frivolous lawsuit, with a judge backing the mask mandate in St. Louis County. And Parson, in his State of the State address, again lashed out at his “critics” and touted as a success the state’s efforts to make sure that senior citizens are vaccinated. What Parson didn’t say was that Missouri has the fourth-lowest vaccination rate in the country for senior citizens, with only Alabama, Arkansas and West Virginia fully vaccinating a lower percentage of their residents age 65 and older.

Meanwhile, because Parson ended the state of emergency, health care leaders in St. Louis are asking the federal government for help in easing a shortage of workers amid the omicron spike.

“I’ve really tried not to get political through this. This isn’t about the politics. It’s about the science,” Edwards told me. He hopes to be back at the office next week, when he expects a surge of hospitalizations from this week’s record number of positive cases in southwest Missouri. “I’m deeply disheartened by our political leaders. It feels like hubris and political ambition are more important than protecting our community. It’s bewildering to me because it’s the party that I was a member of.”

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