Opinion

Jaco: Missouri’s COVID Taliban wants your kids

Four things happened in the past few days. St. Louis-area kids returned to in-person school; new figures show hospital ICUs in St. Louis city and county are almost full; the Missouri Senate’s Majority Leader called me “scum” for pointing out that a Missouri GOP operative died of COVID, drowning in his own fluids, after refusing to be vaccinated; and Missouri’s Attorney General went to court to stop state school districts from requiring masks. 

These things are related. Anti-vax extremism, led in the white community by Trumpist extremism and in the Black community by paranoid fantasies that the shots are the spawn of the Tuskegee Experiment, means that our kids and grandkids will soon face a surge in COVID-19 infections from the highly contagious Delta variant as local hospital intensive care units are already overflowing.

Facts, as John Adams noted at the start of the 19th century, are stubborn things. But they hardly matter to anti-vax and anti-mask extremists fueled by a toxic mix of internet rumors, hostility toward both health care workers and schools, and venomous ideology. Facts, though, like tornado sirens or “check engine” lights, are warning us that something very bad is about to happen and that our kids will pay the price.

Let’s start with some basic math.

The Delta COVID variant is far more contagious than the OG COVID version. In people under 50, including children, it spreads 2.5 to 3 times as quickly as the original iteration. Missouri has been a national leader in Delta cases, hospitalizations and deaths for more than two months. Children under 12 now make up 12 to 15 percent of all COVID cases, and three to four percent of all hospitalizations.

Missouri has recorded almost 63,000 Delta cases since the start of August. Since those are figures from only 68 of the state’s 117 local health departments, you can bet the real figure is closer to 100,000. If the averages hold true, 12,000 to 15,000 of those are children.

Missouri seems to be undercounting total COVID cases, but it also seems to be deliberately undercounting COVID deaths. For the third week in August, the state’s COVID dashboard (run by the private McChrystal Group out of Washington) counts 47 COVID deaths. But COVID statistician Matthew Holloway, who directly contacts every health department in the state, says he’s identified more than five times that many dead, 255, in the same period.

But as the Delta surge ramps up just as school begins, hospitals and their intensive care units in the city and county are already in deep trouble. Mercy Hospital in Creve Coeur reports all of its ICU beds are full, as does St. Luke’s Hospital in Des Peres. SLU Hospital’s ICU unit is 97 percent full, with only two ICU beds available. SSM DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton’s ICU is 96 percent full, the Barnes-Jewish ICU is 91 percent occupied, as are Mercy Hospital South, Missouri Baptist Medical Center, St. Mary’s and St. Alexius hospitals.

Other figures are remarkably consistent. Over 95 percent of the hospital admissions with COVID are among the unvaccinated. The unvaxed make up close to 100 percent of the ICU patients.

And all of this was baked in before school started across the region this week.

Despite the efforts of anti-mask extremists, most school districts in the St. Louis area are requiring masks for students as school begins in person for the first time in more than a year. St. Louis Public Schools have gone a step further, requiring all employees to be vaccinated by Oct. 15.

But as school districts rush to protect both their teachers and their students, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt has other ideas. Having previously sued both St. louis and Kansas City school districts over mask mandates, Schmitt has now filed a suit to force every school district in the state to give up mandating masks. 

His lawsuit is heavy on right-wing rhetoric because he’s a Missouri Republican. But it’s remarkably light on facts.

Schmitt’s latest lawsuit repeats the same sort of mistakes he used when he sued St. Louis County over mask mandates. That lawsuit claimed the St. Louis area had one of the worst COVID rates in the state, despite the mask mandate. It actually had one of the lowest. 

But stubborn things such as facts won’t stop a born-again extremist attorney general who wants to be U.S. senator from appealing to his party’s unhinged base. His class action lawsuit claims that the AG’s office is not aware of any studies showing masks protect children, and that children, in the words of Gov. Mike Parson, will “get COVID and then get over it,” with low rates of infection, hospitalization and death.

Schmitt’s busy raising cash as he runs in the 2022 Senate primary, so he probably just hasn’t had time to look at the Duke University study of 100,000 children in 13 North Carolina school districts that found mask wearing significant reduces COVID transmission in schools. The AG is also probably unaware that all of the information cited in his lawsuit involves the original COVID strain, not the far more contagious Delta variant.

But even if he is aware, it doesn’t make any difference. Schmitt couldn’t care less about protecting your kids from COVID. He’s using the lawsuit as more performance art aimed at Missouri Republican primary voters, the hard core who’ve always thought COVID is a hoax, or at the most, liberal hysteria. Schmitt defines “freedom” the same way they do: the ability of conservatives to do whatever they want without regard to the consequences for anyone else.

It’s a venomous ideology that’s helped spread the Delta variant across the country and has helped kill 635,000 Americans, 11,000 of them in Missouri. Among the dead is Steve Walsh, press secretary for GOP U.S. Rep. Vicki Hartzler of central Missouri.

Walsh began his career as a journalist. I know people in Washington who worked with him at WWRC and Unistar radio. I know journalists in Missouri who worked with him at MissouriNet radio. I know people who interacted with him as press secretary. All described a decent, humane, funny professional who was highly respected.

Walsh was married to Missouri state Sen. Sara Walsh, an anti-vaxer. She refused to get vaccinated, as did Steve (much to the surprise of people who had known him years ago). Both got COVID. Sen. Walsh survived. Steve died.

I wrote on Twitter: “Both refused to get vaccinated. Both got COVID. She’s alive. He died this morning, drowned in his own fluids while in an induced coma, hooked to a ventilator.”

State Sen. Caleb Rowden — part-time preacher, crusader against racism education in schools, and Missouri Senate Majority Leader — wrote on Twitter: “This is all Charles Jaco can bring himself to say. You are bottom of the barrel scum.”

No, Senator, the scum are your party’s anti-vax, anti-mask Taliban who have yowled for over a year that masks, vaccines and mitigation measures interfere with their “freedom.” Their toxic extremism has killed thousands of people, including Steve Walsh.

Their anti-science, anti-fact jihad is murderous nonsense.

Sicken and kill your own sycophants if you want. But keep your unhinged nonsense away from our children and their schools.

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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