Multiple health departments in Missouri have abandoned most or all of their covid-19 tracking and prevention work after a recent court ruling stripped state and local public health agencies of their powers to establish disease prevention measures.
On Dec. 7, Missouri state attorney general Eric Schmitt issued cease-and-desist letters to local public health departments and school districts across the state that cited the court decision—which ruled the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, or DHSS, can’t create and enforce health orders such as mask mandates and quarantine orders—and instructed these institutions to “stop enforcing and publicizing any such orders immediately.”
“Failure to follow the court’s judgment may result in enforcement action against you to remove orders the court has determined are unconstitutional and illegal,” reads a statement from Schmitt’s office. “We encourage you to take immediate action to remove all unconstitutional and illegal orders.”
In response, the Laclede County Health Department, the New Madrid County Health Department, and several other Missouri health agencies announced this week that they are abandoning all work related to the covid-19 pandemic, including case investigations, contact tracing, quarantine orders, and public announcements of case and death tallies.
“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,” the Laclede County Health Department wrote in a Facebook post Friday, as flagged by Ars Technica. The New Madrid County Health Department posted a nearly identical message the same day.
This all couldn’t have come at a worse time: Coronavirus cases have surged in Missouri in recent weeks. The state is averaging nearly 3,000 new cases per day, a 124% increase over the past two weeks, and daily hospitalizations have increased by nearly 50% in that same time period, according to the New York Times.
After citizens challenged the DHSS’s power to issue pandemic-related restrictions such as mask mandates and quarantines, Judge Daniel Green of the Cole County Circuit Court ruled on Nov. 22 that these and other covid-19 precautionary measures violate the state’s constitution.
“The authority that the DHSS regulations purport to grant to an administrative official to implement control measures and create and enforce orders is open-ended discretion—a catch-all to permit naked lawmaking by bureaucrats throughout Missouri,” Green said in the ruling.
However, gaps in the decision’s language have led to some confusion among health officials. As Ars Technica notes, some health agencies are abandoning measures specifically cited in the ruling, like quarantine orders, but continuing other work related to covid-19 with the disclaimer that they are still awaiting further guidance from the DHSS.
The Washington County Health Department said in a Facebook post Friday that while it “can no longer require quarantine,” it will still require individuals who have tested positive for the virus to isolate for 10 days per the criteria outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Meanwhile, Schmitt, a staunch Republican running for U.S. Senate, has rushed to enforce Green’s ruling and, in the process, effectively declared war on the state’s health departments and school systems over coronavirus precautions.
“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. My Office will enforce the Court’s order across the state,” Schmitt said in a statement posted by his office.
On Sunday, the U.S. hit a grim milestone, reaching 800,000 coronavirus-related deaths, Reuters reports. As the outlet notes, even with vaccines widely and freely available for much of this year, more Americans died from covid-19 in 2021 than in 2020, in part due to the more contagious Delta variant. If public officials still aren’t taking the pandemic seriously at this point, no amount of blood on their hands will. And damn if that isn’t depressing.