CoronavirusOpinionPolitics

Jaco: St. Louis’ vaccine hunger games, sponsored by Qpublican extremists

Gov.  Mike Parson and his politicized “health” department crowing about Missouri’s “balanced” approach to COVID is like an arsonist hired as fire chief bragging about how he almost managed to put out all the fires he started.

Parson is one of a handful of governors who refused to issue a mask mandate (“Those danged masks,” remember?) His health director was fired from a similar job in North Carolina for telling people it was safe to drink water tainted with coal ash. His state dashboard tracking COVID-19, outsourced to a D.C. consulting firm run by disgraced former Gen. Stanley McChrystal at a cost to Missouri taxpayers of $600,000, has understated COVID cases in the state by more than 80,000, and COVID deaths by more than 1,000. 

Dr. Randall Williams

But in a contribution to public health unequaled since Typhoid Mary Mallon spread typhoid throughout New York between 1900 and 1915 because she refused to believe she carried the disease, Parson and health director Dr. Randall “Coal Ash Water Gives Your Body Carbon” Williams have directed a COVID vaccination program that has overloaded isolated rural areas with vaccine doses while shortchanging both St. Louis and Kansas City.

The vaccination rate is 19 percent in Missouri right now. In the city, it’s under 12 percent.

City business owner Anne Taussig summed it up on Facebook after driving 120 miles to the town of Salem to get vaccinated, where a nurse told her almost all of the 1,800 vaccines went to St. Louisans who couldn’t find any vaccination sites in the St. Louis metro area.

“So I did the math,” she wrote. “Two people per car and 900 cars driving 240 miles over 4 hours round-trip to Salem totals 216,000 MILES and 3,600 HOURS on the road.”

Cars line up at a mass vaccination event at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Leopold, Mo., on Feb. 24.

The thousands of St. Louisans who’ve driven millions of miles to cow-and-soybean country to get shots are the privileged ones who have good internet access, hours a day to spend looking for vaccine locations, and reliable transportation to get them there and back. What about Gateway City residents who have none of those?

“I call it necro-medicine,” said Dr. Denise Hooks-Anderson, Associate Dean at the St. Louis University School of Medicine. “If you keep doing the same types of detrimental activities to underserved communities, it does look purposeful, and it looks like an intentional act. I think it’s a combination [of disorganization and malice].”

Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis

Democratic state Rep. Peter Merideth, whose House district covers Tower Grove South, agrees that the governor and his health director did two things simultaneously: They bungled the complicated logistics chain for vaccines in a state whose public health infrastructure barely exists due to over a decade of budget cuts; and they decided to channel Vito Corleone by rewarding friends in dependably Republican rural areas while punishing enemies in the Democratic cities.

“I honestly think it’s somewhere between the two,” Meredith said. “Most of the rollout and relief failures have been incompetence. The inequitable distribution of vaccines, though, almost has to have an intentionality to it at this point. It’s just not plausible it’s happening entirely by accident.”

U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo.

Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has called for a federal investigation into Missouri’s vaccine distribution. U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, D-St. Louis, says Gov. Parson has ignored her request for a vaccine equity strategy; she calls the vaccine distribution in St. Louis “unacceptable.” St. Louis County Executive Dr. Sam Page, fuming over lack of vaccines and residents’ making hours-long drives to get shots, accused the Parson administration of a “fumbled vaccine rollout.”

Parson has punctuated his smug assurances that his “balanced” maskless-personal-responsibility policy is working, with tantrums aimed at doctors. When Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, complained about lack of vaccine distribution in the St. Louis region, Parson said Garza was “lying.” He reacted the same way when Garza’s Kansas City counterpart complained about shortages in his city.

Meredith and half-a-dozen other lawmakers sent a letter to health director Williams asking 10 specific questions about vaccine distribution, including how the state decides which locations get vaccines, and whether any efforts are being made to assure equitable distribution. The letter was sent Feb. 17. So far, Williams’ Department of Health and Senior Services has not responded.

This is more than incompetence. This is ideology from pro-Trump QAnon-infected Missouri Republicans who first proclaimed COVID a hoax, then said masks were symbols of oppression, and then decided to spread vaccine generously to “real” Missourians in almost exclusively white, deep-red, small-town Missouri, while choking off supplies to the despised “urban elites.”

A state health director actually concerned about, you know, health, could have been a Show-Me Dr. Anthony Fauci, bringing science to the idea of giving the most vaccines to areas with the most people and the most vulnerable populations. But Williams is a political animal in a lab coat. He maintained a spreadsheet of menstrual periods of women who visited Planned Parenthood in St. Louis to see if they had violated Missouri’s eight-week ban on abortions, a law tossed out as unconstitutional by a federal court.

Ken Rudo was chief state toxicologist in North Carolina back when Williams told Tarheel State residents that it was safe to drink water tainted with coal ash. When asked by the Kansas City Star about COVID, Rudo said, “If Randall [Willams] had been state health director here [in North Carolina] during coronavirus, I would be frightened for the health of the people who live here with me.”

Um, Ken? He is, and we are.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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