It brings me no joy to write this. My heart has been heavy all week, thinking about the job I have before me. What follows is not a gleeful denunciation. It is the fulfillment of a sense of duty to the reader, and my community, to make you aware of the disservice that has been done to us by the people we look to for guidance.
As a cancer survivor, it is my business to know about threats to my health. I cannot afford to be nonchalant. My immune system, though much improved, is nonetheless not what it used to be. So, I must be vigilant. This concern and vigilance is reflected in my columns.
On February 19, I wrote about the flu season in Pettis County and the need to stay home. On February 29, I wrote about COVID-19 and the difference between panic and prudent preparation. Last week, I wrote about how to manage stress that comes with the unknown.
Like most sick people and medical professionals, my concern over COVID-19 (Coronavirus) has been growing since we first heard about its spread. It has become clear to everyone that this is not just “the flu,” that it spreads like wildfire, that will not go away if we ignore it, and that it will cause widespread death and disruption in our nation just like it has in China and Italy, where it has killed thousands to date. This is an unprecedented occurrence in our lifetimes. It requires unprecedented action to slow down its spread.
To our great detriment, state and local leaders have been unwilling to take the action that will save the lives of the elderly and ill in our midst. Hemming and hawing, shifting responsibility up and down the chain of command, and naive disbelief have marked every step of our response to COVID-19. This is a disease where the actions of every day, even every hour matter.
As recently as last weekend, Gov. Parson passed the buck to local health officials to make some of the toughest decisions. In his March 13 press release, which began “As Governor, I have no greater responsibility than to keep all Missourians healthy and safe ..” he declined to take measures which other states had already enacted to protect families, teachers and school employees, stating “Schools administrators should seek the guidance of local health officials when thinking about closing their schools.” The next day, other states were shutting down public gatherings in bars and restaurants in accordance with Centers for Disease Control recommendations that no more than 50 people gather together at one time. Parson again declined to do this, stating that he “strongly urge[d] the cancellation or suspension of public gatherings of 50 individuals or more, but making a potentially fatal exception for “educational institutions, daycare facilities, and business operations.”
While Parson depended on local authorities to make these important decisions, local authorities were looking back up the chain to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services and CDC. But these too have failed to provide accurate, up-to-date information that will allow us to make smart decisions about public safety.
On Monday the 16th, I contacted the Pettis County Health Center to ask about the possibility of upcoming school cancellations. I was told that there were no plans to recommend cancellation at that time, that children were largely safe from becoming ill from COVID-19. When I remarked I was more worried about children (who can still contract the disease) passing it along to their high-risk relatives, I was told that “the science they were seeing” indicated this was not possible. COVID-19 was again compared to influenza. And (per CDC guidelines) I was told that we in Pettis County didn’t need widespread closures because we have no evidence of community transmission.
All of these assertions are false, and dangerously so. Nearly all emerging science shows that carriers who have contracted the disease but have no symptoms, including children, can pass it to others. COVID-19 is much more deadly than “a bad flu.” And transmission of COVID is exponential, meaning if even one person here has contracted the disease from any of our regional counties with confirmed cases, they have been passing it to dozens, maybe even thousands of people with every cough, sneeze, and careless touch. It is here already, whether we see it or not. Other states recognized this and acted quickly. We failed.
The State of Missouri and Pettis County have waited to close the barn door until after the horse has already bolted. Local authorities looked to the state, state officials punted back to the locals, and all the while bad information and disease have spread unchecked. What we have done has been too little, too lame, and too late. But I hope I am wrong. I have never hoped more strongly to be wrong about anything else in my life.