Melinda Henneberger: Missouri’s Mike Parson in contention for governor who’s done the least to contain COVID-19

Tribune Content Agency

Our editorial board has been pretty hard on Missouri’s accidental governor recently, unfavorably comparing Mike Parson’s meek response to the global coronavirus pandemic to the far more aggressive actions Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly has taken.

But as it turns out, Parson’s performance doesn’t only suffer in comparison to Kelly’s — or to J.B. Pritzker’s in Illinois or to Andrew Cuomo’s in New York.

Only three other governors in the country have been as laissez faire as Parson has in dealing with a crisis the likes of which no one alive today has ever seen — and one that will define the legacy of most every elected official now serving.

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Missouri spiked 600% in a week — the largest rate of increase in the country. As of Tuesday, the number of confirmed cases had climbed by 300 more in the previous 24 hours, to 1,327 known cases and 14 deaths.

Yet a new compilation of actions taken by every state in the country, released by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, shows that Parson’s hands-off attitude has made Missouri an outlier of inaction, too: Only Parson and three other governors — in Iowa, Nebraska and Tennessee — have failed to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, or a statewide order to close nonessential services, or a statewide school closure order.

Over to you, localities and individuals, Parson keeps saying. If he were a doctor, this would be malpractice.

What’s more, according to the University of Washington projections, Missouri is slated for the latest peak in the pandemic in the entire country — around May 18, compared to the expected national peak more than a month earlier, around April 15.

Which means, according to Johns Hopkins’ epidemiologist Melissa A. Marx, “you might have a higher and longer peak.”

Are we feeling special yet?

The obvious blunt instrument to use in response, Marx said, is a stay-at-home order. That’s as opposed to a more targeted approach, such as aggressive contact tracing and isolation of everyone who has been exposed.

But that isn’t really happening as it should be either, said Dr. Rex Archer, who heads Kansas City’s health department, because of federal, state and local public health funding cuts during the last decade.

“The death toll is going to be greater,” because Missouri hasn’t acted more forcefully, Archer said flatly.

Though Parson seems to think that the health of our economy should be the priority, the irony is that his failure to put health first is bound to hurt Missourians financially, too. Because as Archer says, “the disruption that will occur again in the fall if we don’t get our act together will be pretty severe.”

So why is Parson so out of step with other governors in both parties, and at this point, even with the president?

“I’ve been trying to figure that out,” said Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas. “I would hope what isn’t happening is stubbornness” getting in the way of a course correction.

“I agree we should all take responsibility, and I agree we should all pray, but we should also take concrete steps. A 600% increase makes me think, ‘What are we doing?’” And more to the point, not doing.

Archer said the spike is partly because we’re doing more testing now — Missouri has tested nearly three times as many people as Kansas. But it’s also the result of Parson’s inaction in the state that ranks dead last — 51st out of the states and D.C. — in public health funding: “We’re not doing what we need to do to keep people safe at home. That’s a clear issue.”

In Kansas City, where the mayor’s stay-at-home order went into effect just over a week ago, we may already be seeing some early results, Archer said, with a 15% increase on Tuesday that’s a big improvement from the doubling of cases every two-and-a-half to three days that we had been seeing.

Obviously, one day is a snapshot, not a trend. “But if it continues, then our social distancing policies are actually having a positive effect,” as has been the case elsewhere in the country and in the world.

On Tuesday, the White House pandemic team said that even if people do everything that’s asked of them, projections suggest there could be as many 240,000 deaths from the coronavirus in this country.

There is virtually no one to the right of Parson at this point, on what should never have been a partisan issue to begin with. “I understand the governor may be concerned certain areas aren’t ready for these changes,” said Archer, though no one anywhere else in the world was ready to put life on hold, either. “But if they don’t act pretty soon, it’s going to be too late.”

Act now, governor, and get ahead of the other laggards in protecting the lives of constituents. Act now, and you can still come in second to last.



Melinda Henneberger is a columnist for the Kansas City Star.


©2020 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.