In Pemiscot County, a rural municipality in the southeastern corner of Bootheel, Missouri, only about 26% of the population is fully vaccinated, if not boosted, against COVID-19 despite the growing number of hospitals and a rapid increase in cases.
The shocking statistic is similar to other counties along the southern border of the state, including New Madrid, which has a rate of just under 35% for its 17,560 residents.
But even with an increase in cases in the Show-Me state which is virtually certain to increase during the winter and the holiday season – not to mention the looming threat of the Omicron variant – Pemiscot and New Madrid are part of. at least half a dozen local health. departments that say they have halted their COVID-19 response following a scathing Dec. 7 letter from Attorney General Eric Schmitt demanding they withdraw from security in the event of a pandemic.
Critics say Missouri braces for even more trouble – and is pointing the finger at a cynical game for votes in a Republican party that sometimes appears to double pandemic death.
“Attorney General Schmitt is using his office as a tool for his campaign at the expense not only of taxpayer dollars, but at the risk of the health and safety of every Missourian,” said Crystal Quade (D-Springfield), minority leader of the State House. Daily beast on Friday. âWhether it’s asking adult vigilantes to submit photos of schoolchildren wearing masks or threatening school boards and health services, the attorney general is clearly trying to score political points with the far right. “
“Schmitt’s position in the GOP primary should not be the factor that puts the health and safety of Missourians at risk,” she added.
Responding to claims that Schmitt’s position is just a tactic for his Senate campaign, his GA spokesperson replied: âAs always, this criticism is completely unfounded and ridiculous. As the state’s chief legal adviser, Attorney General Schmitt is fighting for the freedom of six million Missourians, and that’s something he will continue to do.
The attorney general’s office also suggested it only targeted quarantine and similar orders from the public health department, rather than all pandemic safety measures.
But Schmitt’s letter was based on a Nov. 22 decision by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Daniel Green, which found that the Missouri Department and Health Services and Elderly Services did not. no power to “allow the passage of bare laws by bureaucrats” who wanted to fight the pandemic. Indeed, the judge overturned several regulations that gave local agencies the power to issue public health orders and quarantines.
But confusion remains over how the order intended for the state health agency applies to local health services’ response to COVID-19 – and some departments have suggested they stop it altogether. work in the event of a pandemic.
Health departments in at least six counties – Stoddard, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Scott, Dunklin, Laclede, McDonald – issued virtually identical statements almost simultaneously on Thursday saying they were “being forced to stop all work related to COVID -” 19 âafter Schmitt’s letter. This work, they said, included an investigation of COVID-19 cases, contact tracing, quarantine orders and all public announcements about cases and deaths.
“While this is a huge concern for our agency, we have no choice but to follow the orders of the Missouri attorney general at this time,” one of the statements continued. “We are awaiting further direction from the Missouri Department of Health and Aging Services (DHSS), but we have no timeline or expectation that this decision will be changed.”
Spokesmen for other state health departments interviewed by The Daily Beast described confusion surrounding the order and noted they were waiting to hear advice from the Department of Health and Seniors’ Services of Missouri before making a decision. A spokesperson for Quade also argued that while the decree applies to mandates given by unelected bodies, such as health services or principals, it does not affect mandates put in place by elected school boards.
DHSS declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment for this story.
For Dr. Amesh Adalja, principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and specialist in infectious diseases, the turbulent situation in Missouri “underscores the need for state legislatures to codify, in law, the powers of public health so that , during emergency situations, health services can perform their primary functions with established legal authority.
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global health expert and contributor to the Daily Beast, agreed, arguing that Schmitt’s letter was the product of “a political grinding ax.”
“Public health officials have always had the power to test, contract and ensure public safety in an emergency,” Gostin said. âThese powers existed a century before the arrival of COVID and they will continue to exist. “
Elected attorney general in 2019, Schmitt has been at the center of several health-related controversies, including filing a lawsuit to strike down the Affordable Care Act.
At the onset of the pandemic, Schmitt actually seemed determined to target those who spread disinformation or tried to profit from the crisis, highlighted by a March 2020 lawsuit against televangelist Jim Bakker, who falsely claimed that his ” silver solution âwould treat the deadly virus.
More recently, however, Schmitt has sued school districts and at least one county for attempting to implement mask warrants – despite the Missousi Department of Health concluding that the mitigation measures have reduced cases and deaths. in the state. Throughout this week, Schmitt also encouraged parents on Twitter to submit videos or images to identify Missouri school districts that violate this judge’s order, even though his power over them was unclear.
In the letter, Schmitt went further, insisting that local health agencies in Missouri were “unchecked” throughout the pandemic and violated a judge’s ruling – and that he would initiate legal proceedings. legal action if they did not comply.
“Public health authorities and school districts are left unchecked, issuing illegal and unconstitutional orders in their quest to aggregate, maintain and exercise their new power … You must immediately stop enforcing and publishing such orders,” said Schmitt writes in the letter, before referring to quarantine orders, mask warrants and other COVID-19 warrants.
“Failure to comply with the court judgment may result in enforcement action against you,” Schmitt added. âWe encourage you to take immediate action. “
In a statement to the Daily Beast, Schmitt’s spokesperson reiterated the Attorney General’s assertion that the Cole County Circuit Court order requires “local public health authorities and school districts to cease enforce mask warrants, quarantine orders or any other public health order that is void. and no one under judgment.
“If local public health authorities or school districts feel they need additional authority, the next legislative session begins in January,” the spokesperson added.
What has emerged is a broader pattern of reducing pandemic safety in a condition that experts say can hardly afford. This week, the Daviess County Health Department said in a statement it would no longer issue quarantine orders for schoolchildren, while Cass County Department of Health said they would change their quarantine protocol.
Until now, counties that have publicly said they are suspending COVID-related initiatives have been mostly rural countries. None of the major cities like St. Louis or Kansas City released public responses to Schmitt’s order, and their spokespersons did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Laclede County Health Department released a statement on Friday saying that while they cannot publicly brief the public on work related to COVID-19, “internally” their response to the pandemic “has changed very little. “.
“Staff at the Laclede County Health Department will continue to monitor positive cases, deaths and statistical data for our county,” the department said, the first to draw national attention to its decision to stop the cases. COVID protocols, alongside the county’s latest pandemic statistics. the Kansas City Star first reported on the situation there.
But residents of Missouri have expressed outrage over the latest attempt to reduce COVID protections in the state.
Tracey Sloan of Lebanon, Missouri, told the Daily Beast she was “not shocked” by Schmitt’s actions, arguing that “our state government has been in default since the start” of the pandemic. Sloan noted that some state residents have been reluctant to follow COVID guidelines throughout the crisis – and that accessing information on cases, hospitalizations and vaccination sites has done little. to reduce it.
âBut I think it was beneficial to at least know how much of a problem that was,â she added. “I’m afraid that people [conclude] this is no longer a problem and will become even more relaxed.