Local health departments lack authority, readjust following Attorney Generals’ threat

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. – Local health departments in the Ozarks are dealing with a surge in COVID-19 cases, while now lacking the basic authority to be able to mitigate virus spread. 

In late November, a judge in Cole County ruled local health departments and schools have no right to enact or enforce mask mandates or order quarantines. 

A couple of weeks later, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt sent a letter to local health departments threatening legal action if agencies don’t comply with the ruling. 

It’s forced many local public health officials, like those at the Webster County Health Unit to rethink how it can curtail virus spread as the Ozarks enter a third wave of the pandemic.

“Some counties have decided just not to do anything, and we don’t feel that’s the right thing to do,” says Scott Allen, Administrator of the Webster County Health Unit. 

Allen says the health unit has shifted its strategy from mandating folks quarantine and wear masks to simply advising they do so and hoping they comply. 

“When we talk to folks, instead of saying. ‘We need you to quarantine’ or ‘You have to quarantine, you have to isolate.’ What we’re doing is we’re saying. ‘This is what the CDC recommends and this is what we recommend that you do,’” Allen says. 

Despite cases rising again since before the holiday season, Allen says the new strategy appears to be working. 

“What we’re finding, by and large, is that when you give people the opportunity to do the right thing, that’s exactly what they’re going to do,” he adds. 

Allen says he believes Missouri scaling back local health department’s authority to act is a result of becoming highly politicized and some people no longer trusting the local health community. 

“I never once was a paramedic did I have somebody ask me about the medicine that I was going to give them. Never once as a paramedic and somebody ask me about the level of training that I had or anything else.”

Amid the latest wave, Allen says this pandemic is becoming one of personal responsibility.

“We give them good information, good science, good health-based information, and then we expect them to do the right thing with that information. And again, by and large, they do,” Allen says. 

For those seeking COVID-19 testing, a free drive-thru testing event will be held the next three Wednesdays from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Webster County Fairgrounds. 

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