Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

“No, We Didn’t Get the Vaccine… We’re Republicans.”

Missouri as a test case in conservative covidiocy and bad governance.
by Jim Swift
July 30, 2021
“No, We Didn’t Get the Vaccine… We’re Republicans.”

In the last few weeks, Missouri has become a COVID hotspot, as have parts of its southern neighbor, Arkansas. The spikes in cases there are approaching levels not seen since winter.

The Show Me State has also become a hotspot for COVID journalism tourism, with Politico publishing a long feature article most notable for the revelation that at Lake of the Ozarks, teenagers and twentysomethings will provide you with stupid quotes. For those of you who don’t hail from Missouri, Lake of the Ozarks is a big man-made lake where people take out pontoon boats and get drunk. It’s also the setting of the eponymous Netflix series. Outside of Kansas City and Saint Louis, Missouri doesn’t have much in the way of big metro areas in between, so “the Lake” is one of its big vacation draws, and not just for Missourians, but for neighbors not too far away in Kansas, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

The state’s other rural big vacation draw, Branson, is fueling the Delta variant, too. Branson is often considered “Vegas for evangelicals,” except for that whole gambling thing. Missourians rejected a proposed casino license for the town in 2004, and ever since it’s been relegated to tacky carnival-like attractions, a Titanic museum, and shows in which has-beens perform in aging theaters. You can eat at Yakov Smirnoff’s dinner theater and then stay at Yakov Smirnoff’s Condos at The View at Emerald Pointe, and maybe someday spend your twilight years in a Yakov Smirnoff retirement community. What a country!

And now, in both Lake of the Ozarks and Branson, the rate of new confirmed COVID cases is rapidly climbing. Here are the trendlines for Miller and Camden Counties, where Lake of the Ozarks is, and Taney County, home to Branson:

Miller County
Camden County
Taney County

In addition to the spread of the more-contagious Delta variant, there are cultural and political reasons those trend lines are climbing.

The Lake and Branson are both Trump country—and then some. You are likely to see the Confederate battle flag not far from delusional flags claiming that Donald Trump won the 2020 election. And both are places where most people have not yet been vaccinated. Then again, that’s true of the whole of Missouri, where not even one of the state’s 114 counties has had half its population fully vaccinated:

(Via the Springfield News-Leader)

As someone who was eager to get the vaccine, the anecdotal evidence about vaccine hesitancy in Missouri strikes me as perverse and often baffling—as in the case of this CNN story from yesterday about people sneaking off to get the vaccine without letting friends and family know:

Writing from neighboring Arkansas, Monica Potts describes in the Atlantic what it’s like to have the fiery Delta variant come through when only 35 percent of her neighbors have gotten vaccinated. It’s a saddening and angering read:

Many white evangelicals had already begun to shun vaccines altogether, and part of their rationale is this sense of predestination. The message of these anti-vaxxers builds on a basic idea: God built your body, and the immunity that nature gave you is better than any medicine. Sometimes, doctors repeat these messages. Bryan, the local pharmacist, told me that two doctors in our hometown are not discouraging their patients from getting the vaccines, but they are also not advocating for them. Some are more blatant in their opposition—Amy Beard, who practices telemedicine and is licensed in the state, has been outspoken about treating COVID-19 patients instead with medication typically used to prevent heartworms in dogs, cows, and goats. On her Facebook page, she called the shots “mutant factories,” in response to comments about the vaccines creating variants. Someone who had recovered from COVID-19 in January asked her about “natural” immunity; Beard responded, “Before Covid, natural immunity was the BEST immunity. And it still is.”

So as hospitals across Missouri reach capacity, what are government leaders doing about it? What can government leaders do about it?

Let’s start with St. Louis, where mask mandates are back. Well . . . sort of. Last week both the county and the city announced that mask requirements were going to be implemented again.

Earlier this week, Faisal Khan, the acting director of the Saint Louis County Department of Health, testified in support of the mask mandate before the county council:

The house is on fire. . . . We’re standing in front of it debating about which fire hydrant we should connect the fire hose to—whether we should enact mask mandates this way or that way. That is how absurd this situation is.

After leaving the meeting, Khan says he was greeted with physical assaults and racial epithets.

Not to be outdone, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, a Republican, filed a lawsuit to attempt to stop the renewed mask mandate. As he told Fox Business on Tuesday:

People have had it; so we’re filing a lawsuit because it is arbitrary and capricious. It is not based on facts, it is not based on science.

In fact, St. Louis City and St. Louis County have the most restrictive regimes in the whole state and their numbers were worse than counties that didn’t have any restrictions at all. They are making this up as they go along and we got to stop them.

Either Schmitt truly doesn’t understand that St. Louis county and city, which have much higher population densities than the rest of the state, are places where infectious disease can spread more rapidly than rural areas and so require different precautions, or his lawsuit is all for show and he’s just positioning himself for higher office. Take your pick.

Also on Tuesday, the county council voted 5-2 to rescind the mask mandate to much applause.

This puts county residents in an odd situation. Who is your government? The county executive, Sam Page, who says the order stands? Or your county council, which claims to have rescinded it? If police are required to enforce the law or a business owner wants the mandate enforced, what happens? It’s a mess—one that will likely be resolved by the courts, but perhaps only after many people needlessly died because of political posturing.

Meanwhile, on the western side of the state, two Republican lawmakers have made a name for themselves by making outlandish claims, as ProPublica reports:

Around Independence Day, State Rep. Bill Kidd, from the Kansas City suburbs, revealed that he has been infected by the coronavirus.

“And no, we didn’t get the vaccine,” he wrote in a post that has since been deleted. “We’re Republicans 😆”

State Rep. Brian Seitz, a Republican from Taney County, home to the tourist destination of Branson, commented on the post by falsely claiming that the virus had been developed by top government scientist Anthony Fauci and billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates. They “knew what was coming,” Seitz wrote.

“The jury is still out on the ‘vaccine’ (who knows what’s in that),” he wrote.

This puerile gullibility, this prideful credulousness is a disgrace to the nickname Show Me State. It is also deeply irresponsible as a matter of government and public health. Let’s hope that many more Missourians, seeing the appalling statistics, get vaccinated as quickly as possible—even if they have to sneak off to get the shot in secret.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.