In Pemiscot County, a rural municipality in the southeastern corner of Missouri’s Bootheel, only about 26 percent of the population is fully vaccinated—if not boosted—against COVID-19 despite growing hospital numbers 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 is boasting a rate of just under 35 percent for its 17,560 residents.
But even with a surge in cases in the Show-Me state that is virtually certain to increase during the winter and holiday season—not to mention the looming threat of the Omicron variant—Pemiscot and New Madrid are among at least half a dozen local health departments that say they have halted their COVID-19 response in the wake of a scathing Dec. 7 letter from Attorney General Eric Schmitt demanding they pull back from pandemic safety.
Critics say Missouri is setting itself up for even more trouble—and pointing the finger at a cynical play for votes in a Republican Party that sometimes seems to be doubling down on pandemic death.
“Attorney General Schmitt is using his office as a tool for his campaign at the expense of not only taxpayer dollars, but at the risk to the health and safety of every Missourian,” State House Minority Leader Crystal Quade (D-Springfield) told The Daily Beast on Friday. “Whether it’s asking adult vigilantes to submit photos of school children wearing masks or threatening school boards and health departments, the Attorney General is clearly trying to score political points with the far right.”
“Schmitt’s standing in the GOP primary shouldn’t be the factor that puts the health and safety of Missourians at risk,” she added.
In response to the allegations that Schmitt’s stance is merely a tactic for his Senate campaign, his AG spokesperson responded: “As always, that criticism is completely unfounded and ridiculous. As the chief legal officer of the state, Attorney General Schmitt is fighting for the freedom and liberty of all six million Missourians, and that’s something he will continue to do.”
The attorney general’s office has also suggested it is only targeting quarantine and similar public-health department orders, 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 concluded that the Missouri Department and Health and Senior Services did not have the authority to “permit naked lawmaking by bureaucrats” who wanted to address the pandemic. In effect, the judge struck down several regulations that gave local agencies the power to issue public health orders and quarantines.
But there remains confusion on how exactly the order aimed at the state’s health agency applies to local health departments’ response to COVID-19—and some departments have suggested they are stopping pandemic work altogether.
Health departments in at least six counties—Stoddard, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Scott, Dunklin, Laclede, McDonald—issued virtually identical statements almost simultaneously on Thursday indicating they were “forced to cease all COVID-19 related work” after Schmitt’s letter. That work, they said, included COVID-19 case investigation, contact tracing, quarantine orders, and all public announcements about cases and deaths.
“While this is a huge concern for our agency, we have no other options but to follow the orders of the Missouri Attorney General at this time,” one such statement continued. “We are awaiting additional direction from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS), but have no timeline or expectations that this ruling will be changed.”
Spokespeople for other health departments in the state canvassed by The Daily Beast described confusion over the order, and noted that they were waiting to hear guidance from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services before making any decisions. A spokesperson for Quade also argued that while the order applies to mandates made by non-elected bodies—like health departments or directors—it doesn’t touch mandates put into place by elected school boards.
DHSS declined The Daily Beast’s request for comment for this story.
For Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and a specialist in infectious diseases, the hectic situation in Missouri “underscores the need for state legislatures to codify, in law, public health powers so that during emergency situations, health departments can perform their core functions with established legal authority.”
Lawrence Gostin, a Georgetown University global-health expert and Daily Beast contributor, agreed, arguing that Schmitt’s letter was the product “of a political axe to grind.”
“Public health officials have always had the power to test, contract trace, and ensure the safety of the public amid an emergency,” Gostin said. “These powers have existed a century before COVID came and they will continue to exist.”
Elected to be attorney general in 2019, Schmitt has been at the center of several health-related controversies, including filing lawsuits to invalidate the Affordable Care Act.
Early on in the pandemic, Schmitt actually appeared determined to target those spreading misinformation or trying to profit off the crisis, highlighted by a March 2020 lawsuit against televangelist Jim Bakker, who falsely claimed his “Silver Solution” would treat the deadly virus.
Most recently, however, Schmitt has gone after school districts and at least one county for trying to implement mask mandates—despite the Missousi Department of Health concluding the mitigation measures reduced cases and deaths in the state. Throughout this week, Schmitt has also been encouraging parents on Twitter to submit videos or pictures to identify Missouri school districts that are in violation of this judge’s order, even if its power over them was unclear.
In the letter, Schmitt took it one step further, insisting that local Missouri health agencies have “gone unchecked” throughout the pandemic and were violating a judge’s ruling—and he would take legal action if they did not abide.
“Public health authorities and school districts have gone unchecked, issuing illegal and unconstitutional orders in their quest to aggregate, maintain, and exert their new-found power.... You should stop enforcing and publicizing any such orders immediately,” Schmitt wrote in the letter, before referring to quarantine orders, mask mandates, and other COVID-19 mandates.
“Failure to follow the court’s judgment may result in enforcement action against you,” Schmitt added. “We encourage you to take immediate action.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Schmitt’s spokesperson reiterated the Attorney General’s claim that the Cole County Circuit Court Order requires “local public health authorities and school districts to stop enforcing any mask mandates, quarantine orders, or any other public health orders that are null and void under the judgment.”
“If local public health authorities or school districts feel they need additional authority, the next legislative session starts in January,” the spokesperson added.
What has emerged is a broader pattern of cutting back on pandemic safety in a state that experts say can ill afford it. This week, the Daviess County Health Department said in a statement they will no longer issue quarantine orders for school children, while Cass County Health Department has said they will change their quarantine protocol.
So far, the counties that have publicly issued statements that they are suspending COVID-related initiatives have chiefly been rural ones. None of the major cities like St. Louis or Kansas City have issued public responses to Schmitt’s order, and their spokespeople did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
On Friday, the Laclede County Health Department released a statement indicating that while they cannot publicly inform the public about COVID-19 related work, “internally” their response to the pandemic “has changed very little.”
“The staff of Laclede County Health Department will continue to track positive cases, deaths, and statistical data for our county,” the department, the first to gain national attention over their decision to halt COVID protocols, announced alongside the latest county pandemic statistics. The Kansas-City Star first reported on the situation there.
But Missouri residents were expressing their outrage over the latest attempt to curtail COVID protections in the state.
Tracey Sloan of Lebanon, Missouri, told The Daily Beast that she was “not shocked” by Schmitt’s actions, arguing that “our state government has been lacking since the beginning” of the pandemic. Sloan noted that some residents in the state have been hesitant to follow COVID guidelines throughout the crisis—and that access to information about cases, hospitalizations, and vaccination sites hasn’t done much to curtail it.
“But I do think it was beneficial to at least know how much of an issue it was,” she added. “I’m afraid people will [conclude] it isn’t an issue anymore and will become even more relaxed.”