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When Politics And Public Health Are Tense, The Delta Variant Thrives

Chicago issued a travel advisory warning against traveling to Missouri on Aug. 18, less than a month after Missouri Gov. Mike Parson wrapped up his bicentennial bus tour.

In the summer of 2017, as the state’s case count for covid-19 began to rise after the highly transmissible delta variant was introduced, the Republican-dominated legislature passed laws that stripped businesses of their legal liability concerning such cases.

When Politics And Public Health Are Tense, The Delta Variant Thrives

Despite the increase in covid cases in Missouri, the state health officer post has remained vacant since Dr. Randall Williams departed abruptly in late April. A recall vote is expected for Springfield’s mayor Brian Steele, whose masking mandate ended in April, and was at the center of the swelling cases.

When Politics And Public Health Are Tense, The Delta Variant Thrives

Southwest Missouri hospitals are filled. Based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, Missouri is among the 15 worst states for covid vaccinations and the worst for covid case rates over the past week. Cases are not even half as high as they were during the winter spike, but they are rapidly rising, sending a message to other states with low vaccine rates about the havoc the Delta coronavirus can cause.

Missouri has a multitude of divisions, and despite widespread vaccine availability, just 40 percent of its residents have received vaccinations. State-wide mask requirements are wildly unpopular in a state that hasn’t mandated mask use for public health purposes. Even those who have been vaccinated face a greater risk of a mutated virus that is more transmissible or lethal.

An official with the governor, Kelli Jones, said Missouri’s national focus is misdirected. It is normal for vaccination rates to drop during flare-ups, she explained, adding that hospital capacity may be stretched in those areas due to a backlog of elective procedures during this round of the pandemic.

Both Jones and Lisa Cox, the Missouri departments’ spokesperson, mentioned a $5 million multimedia campaign that encouraged vaccinations. As a result of increased demand for vaccines, Cox said, they have seen a threefold increase in vaccine orders from vaccine distributors. However, vaccines are not immediately effective.

In the meantime, hot spot Springfield is seeking state funding for an alternative site for covid care treatment, stating that health systems are overburdened. Vaccine supporters and anti-vaccine activists are starkly at odds on Springfield-Greene County Health Department’s Facebook page, awash in hateful comments.

The heavily afflicted Springfield area is familiar to lobbyist Will Marrs, who works for the Missouri Association of Local Public Health Agencies. High school friends are reluctant to get vaccinated and he has tried to change their minds but has had difficulties breaking through misinformation echo chambers.

Rather than clamor for vaccinations at the top of their lungs, she blames national politics seeping into Missouri’s Statehouse and the political lifeblood of the state. Participants at the Conservative Political Action Conference hailed the country’s vaccination rate as low earlier this month.

As the state’s Senate delegation shows, Sen. Josh Hawley, a Republican looking to run for higher office, has contrasted President Joe Biden’s vaccine misinformation campaign with a “surveillance state” created by Beijing. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who has actively urged people to get vaccinated, does not intend to run for reelection.

Missourians are being urged to get vaccinated against covid at the urging of State Rep. David Parson. He also tweeted that the federal government should be informed that forced vaccinations made by government agents or employees would be neither effective nor welcome in Missouri.

In the current system, there is a single epidemiologist on the ground in southwest Missouri and a vaccination specialist providing virtual support, numbers based on the state’s requirements. Cox noted that the state is seeking more resources. According to Brian Castrucci, CEO of the Beaumont Foundation, which advocates for public health, two people aren’t enough to contend with decades of underfunding and a year and a half of political rhetoric.

In Jefferson County, only roughly 30% of people have received the game-changing vaccine. Her area did not buy into mitigation measures like masking as it did last year during a similar rise in cases. Her local school board candidates campaigned on removing masks from schools. As noted in the state’s health department’s advisories, “social distancing, masking, and other precautions should still be observed” but are not mandated.

Additionally, Vollmar warned that funding was lacking for contact tracers and other public health measures required in the face of the wave. In the meantime, funding has not reached local health departments as withheld by county commissioners last year angry about lockdowns and other restrictions. The New York City area’s Plate County, which serves around 90,000 people, spent roughly the same amount on pandemic relief to its health department as it did to its cruise ship company.

Since there is no state health officer to coordinate the response or speak with the governor, local officials like Vollmar interact more with federal officials. On Wednesday, the governor’s office is expected to announce the new director. Mr. Knodell, the director acting in the absence of public health background, formerly acted as parson’s deputy chief of staff.

Missouri’s public health expenditures, before the pandemic, reached $50 per Missourian, one of the lowest in the nation. Missouri public health staffing decreased by 8% between 2010 and 2019, with 106 full-time employees losing their jobs.

At least 10 Missouri public health leaders left their jobs this year, according to another investigation by KHN and AP. Nearly one in six Americans had not had a local public health leader for a while since the outbreak began, according to the report.

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