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Missouri Gov. Parson Says Vaccine Resistance Is Declining, Argues Masks Shouldn’t Be Mandated

Gov. Mike Parson makes a point during a July 29, 2021, interview with St. Louis Public Radio in his office in Jefferson City.
Jason Rosenbaum
St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Mike Parson makes a point during a July 29 interview with St. Louis Public Radio in his office in Jefferson City.

Gov. Mike Parson believes that the rapid spread of COVID-19 recently is prompting Missourians to get more serious about vaccinations.

He said the fast-spreading delta variant and incentives are resulting in an uptick of people getting the shot.

But the GOP chief executive stressed in a wide-ranging interview with St. Louis Public Radio that persuasion does have its limits, as some Missourians may never end up getting the shot that’s been proven to sharply reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

“I think the reality is we have to face the fact that there is going to be a certain segment of the population that’s not going to take this vaccine,” Parson said. “For me, I believe the vaccine works. I don’t know what the outcome of the vaccine is going to be in three or four years from now. Nobody does. But I think for the time we’re in right now, if we’re going to save lives, I think the vaccine is definitely the way to do it.”

Missouri has become a major focus of the latest COVID-19 uptick because of its big increase in cases, particularly in southwest Missouri. Because so many rural counties have low vaccination rates, hospitals in places like Springfield are filling up with patients — especially since the delta variant is more dangerous for unvaccinated individuals.

Parson said that there was always going to be vaccine hesitancy. Before the vaccine was widely available, he received estimates that 45% of Missourians would be resistant to getting shots.

“So all of this is coming true,” Parson said.

In addition to a $5 million marketing campaign, the state also started a vaccine incentive program in which Missourians can enter for chance to win $10,000.Parson has said he’s not a big fan of giving out money to persuade people to get vaccinated, but he added it’s worth a try.

He pointed out that recently Missouri’s vaccination numbers have gone up significantly. According to the state's COVID-19 website, vaccinations have increased from a daily average in early July of about 7,000 to nearly 13,000 last week. He said the reality of the delta variant’s spread is prompting people who may have either been on the fence or resistant to getting the vaccine to change their mind.

“It’s why we’ve really tried to encourage people to talk with their health care workers in their hometowns. Talk to your doctors. Talk to a nurse you know. Talk to your clergy. And then make a decision. And those are the things that move the needle.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson gives his State of the State address on Wednesday, January 27, 2021, in the Senate Chambers at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. Parson's speech was planned to be given in the House Chambers but was moved to the Senate because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Gov. Mike Parson gives his State of the State address in January in the Senate Chambers at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.

Mandates and masking

Parson has made it clear he’s not a fan of mask mandates. He said they are hard to enforce, and added that he doesn’t like that St. Louis County Executive Sam Page has tried to implement one over the objections of the St. Louis County Council. Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is suing St. Louis County over the matter, so the issue of whether a new law requiring council approval of COVID-19 restrictions applies to mask mandates could be decided in court.

Asked if he would recommend that Missourians voluntarily start wearing masks, Parson replied: “I think that’s strictly up to them.”

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its masking policy, a number of businesses in the St. Louis region are requiring proof of vaccination before people are allowed to enter their establishment. Higher education institutions like Washington University and some local hospitals also are issuing mandates for their employees to be vaccinated.

Parson stressed he’s not going to issue any mandates from the state level requiring vaccinations. He said if a “business decides they want to do that, we’re going to allow them to do that in the state unless something changes to show us differently.”

Medicaid expansion looming

Another major event that recently happened on Parson’s watch is the unanimous Missouri Supreme Court decision that a constitutional amendment expanding Medicaid is valid — and that the state has to begin signing people up for the program.

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem is holding a hearing this week about when people who make up to 138% of the federal poverty level can start enrolling in the health care program. That amounts to about $17,800 a year for an individual or $24,000 for a single mom raising a child. Parson said his administration is monitoring the situation closely.

“We’re definitely making plans to see how we move forward,” Parson said. “We realize what the dynamics of this are. First of all, the Supreme Court was a unanimous decision. And depending on what this judge does here in Cole County, the other thing is you’ve got to start preparing.”

A lot of the particulars are in flux until Beetem lays out a timeline. But Parson said his administration is preparing to submit a plan to the federal government that would allow Missouri to get 90% of Medicaid expansion paid for by the federal government. When the governor pulled those documents in May, it became the catalyst behind the Medicaid expansion lawsuit.

Parson also reiterated what his administration said after the court ruling: The legislature needs to give the administration authority to spend federal money associated with Medicaid expansion — and appropriate state funds to pay for the state’s share.

“What we don’t want is some judge deciding for us how we’re going to implement this from an area he has no experience in,” Parson said.

Missouri is in a fortuitous position in having a lot of money in the bank — and will also be receiving roughly $1 billion from the federal relief bill known as the American Rescue Plan. That should pay for the state match for a number of years, but Parson said the legislature needs to examine ways to make expansion sustainable for the long haul.

“You’ve got to be thinking, ‘What is this going to look like five years from now, 10 years from now.’ And what is the cost going to be? You’re not always going to have a surplus.”

Missouri lawmakers toss paper into the air to commemorate the end of the 2021 legislative session.
Daniel Shular
Special to St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri lawmakers toss paper into the air to commemorate the end of the 2021 legislative session.

Parson on successes, missed opportunities of the legislative session

In addition to COVID-19 and Medicaid expansion, Parson talked about other topics during the roughly 45-minute interview.

  • He said a gas tax hike that he signed into law will be a gamechanger for Missouri transportation policy.
  • He said he was proud to see an overwhelming number of lawmakers pass a bill banning police use of chokeholds, setting up a use of force database and removing the residency requirement for the Kansas City Police Department. It’s arguably the most significant police accountability bill passed in Missouri since Michael Brown’s 2014 shooting death in Ferguson. “I hope that the African American community realizes that we were listening,” he said.
  • Parson said some policymakers are making a false choice on whether to fund police departments or social service programs. That defunding movement is gaining ground in St. Louis but sparking a backlash in Jefferson City. “I don’t think it’s a one or the other solution — I think you need both,” he said. “I think you need more police officers out there. I think, however, police officers do need to go back to community policing.”
  • Missouri lawmakers did not end up passing any election-related legislation this year. He said he would like to see the legislature reimpose Missouri’s government-issued photo identification requirement — a measure that was effectively rendered inoperable by a court.
  • With $2.8 billion coming from the American Rescue Plan, Parson said: “The vast majority of things we’ll be looking for is long term. What we are we going to do on infrastructure? Can we build a state-of-the-art health department out of this after what we’ve been through with this crisis?”
  • Parson talked about why the state “is the heart and soul of the country” and the state's bicentennial. “I really think Missouri values have spread all over this nation,” he said. “It comes back to Missouri values — hard work, being good neighbors, giving each other a helping hand when you need it.”

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.