Three months ago, the Republican governor of Missouri chose not to wear a mask in a shop, because he said he wasn’t going to let the government tell him what to do. Mike Parson visited a hardware store to celebrate its reopening after he lifted Missouri’s coronavirus lockdown over the objections of health professionals and mayors of major cities.
Parson said the worst of the pandemic was past and the economic impact of the shutdown was worse than the virus. As for masks, the governor dismissively claimed “there was a lot of information on both sides” over whether to wear one so he wasn’t going to require people to do so.
Three months later, Covid-19 is surging in Missouri and in many other parts of the midwest that imagined they had escaped the worst of the pandemic.
Health specialists predict a sharp increase in deaths across the region in the coming weeks that will be made significantly worse in some states by the politicians who followed Donald Trump’s lead in undermining medical advice and in questioning the value of masks.
Anthony Fauci, the president’s lead coronavirus expert, recently warned the midwest’s political leaders to follow the science.
“Some states are not doing that,” he said. “We would hope that they all now rethink what happens when you don’t adhere to that. We’ve seen it in plain sight in the southern states that surged.”
Coronavirus deaths in the midwest remain a fraction of the nearly 160,000 recorded during the pandemic across the US. But Missouri is second only to Oklahoma in the number of new positive tests for the virus over the past two weeks. The state has recorded more deaths than Japan and several European countries, and more new cases per day than Germany. Earlier this week, the White House coronavirus task force named Kansas City as a primary area of concern.
People sit at a distance in downtown Oklahoma City in late April. Photograph: Nick Oxford/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Modeling by the PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia shows that coronavirus cases are likely to rise sharply across the midwest through August.
“It is clear now that from Indiana, through Ohio and into Kentucky and Missouri, as well as northward into Illinois and Michigan, there is substantial increased risk throughout the region,” it said.
Some in the midwest thought they had escaped the worst of the pandemic as coronavirus leapt across the country from Washington state to New York and the northeast, and then swallowed the south.
That respite may prove deadly as the initial willingness to take the virus seriously by adhering to lockdown orders gave way to frustration after jobs losses surged in the midwest while deaths remained relatively low. Complacency set in as people grew weary of stay at home orders.
The PolicyLab study found an example in Milwaukee county, Wisconsin, where social distancing has fallen from 73% at its peak to just 30%. Almost no delegates wore masks to the state’s Republican convention in Green Bay last month even though many were elderly and they sat close together in a hall.
Alarmed by rising infections, Wisconsin’s governor last week declared a public health emergency and required masks to be worn indoors. But that immediately fell victim to the politics of coronavirus as at least 16 county sheriffs said they would not enforce the order.
The Florence County Sheriff’s Office told residents: “Wear a mask if you want, if you don’t want to, that is fine also”. In Oneida county, the sheriff said the governor’s order “is in violation of the constitution” while the sheriff of Racine county called the order “government overreach”.
Some praised the sheriffs for standing up for individual freedom while others accused them of politicizing a health emergency, and of picking and choosing laws to enforce.
A doctor at the forefront of combating coronavirus at a major Wisconsin hospital was despairing.
Wisconsin National Guard conduct drive-through testing for Covid-19 in May. Photograph: Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Wire/REX/Shutterstock
“This has become so political. There should have been a straightforward message from the beginning about wearing masks to protect others. It’s too late now. In the present climate, I think this is unstoppable and a lot more people are going to die than would have if politics didn’t get in the way of health,” said the doctor who did not want to be identified because the corporation that owns the hospital did not give him permission to speak.
The University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation has warned that the refusal of Iowa’s governor, Kim Reynolds, to require masks in public spaces will cost 700 additional lives over the next three months. It predicted the number of coronavirus deaths at about 13 a day in Iowa by the end of October with the present policy compared to fewer than two if 95% of people used face coverings.
Iowa has the highest per capita number of Covid-19 infections in the region.
Reynolds has declined to make masks mandatory because she said they are “not a silver bullet” and she trusts people to do the right thing. But research shows that only about one-third of Iowans are using masks in accordance with federal advice.
Doctors say the lack of face coverings combined with Reynolds’ decision to reopen businesses and lift social distancing requirements contributed to a rise in coronavirus cases in July.
Dr Louis Katz, the medical director of Scott county, which is grappling with one of the biggest surges in the state, blames the governor.
“We have no doubt that this is related to reopening more rapidly than many of us would have preferred,” he told a news conference last week.
Katz said the median age for those testing positive for coronavirus has fallen sharply, from about 50 years old to under 30, because of “failures in social distancing by younger adults, who feel invulnerable”.
Twenty intensive care doctors in Iowa signed an open letting pleading with the public to take the pandemic seriously after ICU units in Des Moines filled to capacity and had to add extra beds.
“We are troubled by the path that we are on and what will lie ahead for all of us,” the doctors said.
The letter called on the government to be “a part of the solution”.
Even those political leaders prepared to listen to the health experts can find themselves constrained by the politics.
In Kansas, the Republican-controlled legislature tied governor Laura Kelly’s hands by preventing her from limiting the numbers of people in bars and restaurants or closing businesses until mid-September even as coronavirus cases increase. Republicans said there was no need for Kelly to have those powers because there would not be a second wave until after September.
As it is, the numbers are already climbing.