The local health department of a rural southern Missouri county is halting its COVID-19 response efforts after Attorney General Eric Schmitt wrote agencies this week demanding they drop mitigation measures.
The Laclede County Health Department, which serves a 35,000-person county northeast of Springfield, made the announcement in a Facebook post Thursday morning that it was suspending “all COVID-19 related work.”
It will no longer investigate COVID cases, contact-trace, issue directives for exposed residents to quarantine themselves or make public announcements of case numbers and deaths. The department pointed residents to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and their personal doctors for directions on what to do about a COVID diagnosis.
Cases have been on the uptick in Laclede County since mid-November, according to the state health department. Just 35% of the population is fully vaccinated, compared with 52% of the state. One person there has died from COVID in the past week. State figures show the county has Missouri’s sixth-highest COVID death rate.
“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 department announced.
In an email, department administrator Charla Baker said her agency will continue receiving statistics of COVID cases from the state Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) and will track them internally.
“We will also continue to offer ‘consulting’ opinions for our area healthcare providers, employers and county residents … as permitted,” Baker wrote. “Until we receive further direction from DHSS, and requests for additional information has been submitted, this will be our response work to the continued COVID pandemic.”
Schmitt is running for U.S. Senate and has embarked on a quest to overturn COVID-19 mitigation rules in municipalities and school districts across the state.
He wrote local public health agencies Tuesday threatening legal action if they do not drop mask mandates, quarantine rules or other public health orders. His letter followed a court ruling last month that stripped health departments of several legal powers to order disease-control measures.
At issue is the Nov. 22 ruling of Cole County Circuit Judge Daniel Green, who wrote that a decades-old DHSS administrative rule, allowing it to delegate disease-control authority to local health departments, was unconstitutional because it gave rulemaking powers to unelected officials.
Schmitt had been defending the state health department in the case but refused DHSS Donald Kauerauf’s request to appeal the decision.
Instead, his office immediately launched into a campaign to enforce the ruling statewide, despite widespread concern from health departments that the decision would hinder their ability to stop the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases. In recent weeks, the state Department of Health and Senior Services has scrambled to interpret the ruling for local health departments.
Some of the Laclede County department’s response appeared to go beyond Schmitt’s demands.
“We’re grateful that the Laclede County Health Department has ceased their COVID-19 public health orders like their quarantine order,” Schmitt’s spokesman Chris Nuelle said in an email. “Any further decisions beyond ceasing quarantine orders or similar public health orders should be directed to them.”
It was not clear whether the agency had been directly conducting COVID-19 testing or vaccinations.
“While our agency remains determined to protect the health of our county residents, it should be understood that this ruling greatly affects how we will be able to proceed with ALL highly communicable diseases in the future,” the Laclede County agency wrote Thursday.
On its website, the 16-person department had been providing monthly updates of the county’s case numbers since last May, including anonymized data on the vaccination status of those who tested positive and the numbers of cases associated with local schools.
Schmitt made the same demand this week of school districts, but many districts say the ruling does not apply to them because their COVID rules were enacted by locally elected boards.