Is “doubling down” enough for Carthage COVID response?

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It’s been nearly six months, and Carthaginians wonder if the COVID-19 Task Force created at a special meeting of City Council in July has done anything to address the COVID pandemic. Last week six regional health care facilities including Jasper County Health Department, Community Clinic of Southwest Missouri, Access Family Health Care, Kansas City University, and both Mercy and Freeman Hospitals reached out with a plea to provide leadership to the community by enacting a mask mandate “for the explicit purpose of reducing the spread of COVID-19 in our community, which we know is the only way to reduce the number of sick people in our hospital.”

Mayors from Carthage, Carl Junction, and Webb City responded with a joint statement regarding COVID. The letter addresses a concern that two hospitals are near capacity. The response uses terms like “normal, annual flu season” and urges citizens to “double down” on COVID protocols. As the letter twice refers to “doubling down,” it begs the question – what efforts have been enacted in Carthage? Since forming the COVID Task Force in July, there have been few meetings, no minutes, and zero movements from the Task Force. What are we to “double down” on?

Here is a timeline of the City of Carthage community response since the creation of the COVID Task Force in Carthage. 

Minutes July 1, 2020 Special Meetingdiscuss closures and ordinances regarding community COVID response.

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Councilmember Alan Snow motioned to form a task force “to develop a plan to guide our way through the pandemic.” The motion was tabled as the council considered additional items on the agenda.

Discussion to close city parks with a motion to close to events of more than ten people in a gathering. The motion failed 4/6. Discussion of a mask ordinance. The council was split and frustration with the situation, information available, and political sentiments was palatable via audio. The vote was called with a 5/5 vote. Mayor Dan Rife broke the tie with a “Nay” vote. A mask ordinance has not been passed in Carthage as of Nov. 23, 2020. 

The issue of the task force as presented by Snow was brought back for consideration. However, without a second, there was no additional discussion of the topic and the vote was called. City Council unanimously voted to create the task force with comment from Councilmember Ceri Otero saying it is “the least we can do.”

Minutes July 14, 2020 development of Task Force should consider the Hispanic community.

Councilmember Ed Barlow comments that the Task Force needs to consider the Hispanic community’s needs amid additional discussion from Councilmember Juan Topete’s comments that the virus has been particularly hard on the Hispanic population. 

Minutes July 28, 202028 Days later…a “meeting” held without documentation and task force appointments mentioned, but not included in official documents or Mayor’s Appointments.

Barlow thanked Otero for making a task force flier and Daugherty expressed concern that the task force does not have any doctors. Short reported attending a task force meeting.

Minutes August 11, 2020 41 Days later masks distributed. 

Short reported that masks were distributed in the community by the task force.

Minutes August 25, 2020After just 55 days, this seems to be the last mention of the task force in public records. 

Rife reported on communications with the COVID Task Force. 

However, in a continued examination of Council meetings and documents, additional facts show what is missing from the records and council documentation. For example, a City Council packet typically includes 100 pages of documentation to support appointments, contracts, budget line items, ordinances, and so much more. In the meetings that follow, it becomes overwhelmingly apparent that there are no appointments to the task force, no meeting minutes, no agendas, no emergency budget line items, and no actions of a COVID Task Force to report.  The Mayor’s Appointments appear in the packet for each meeting. With each appointment, a resounding indication of priorities of the Mayor stands out when a COVID Task Force is never officially named despite a unanimous vote of the City Council. 

The meeting timeline continues with no comments on the task force but business as usual and a few COVID issues:

Meeting Packet September 8, 2020Additional task force created and named

Mayor’s Appointments included Care Leave Committee, Enhanced Enterprise Zone Board, Carthage Affordable Housing Task Force (appointed 6 members).

Meeting Packet October 13, 2020 No comments, progress, or mention of COVID Task Force, yet additional placements to other committees.

Mayor’s appointments included Enhanced Enterprise Zone Board and Planning, Zoning and Historic Preservation Commission.

Meeting Packet October 27, 2020New contract with Mercy for testing

First read of CB 20-49 which permits a contract to be signed with Mercy to provide labs for COVID testing. The issue was pushed to second reading due to emergency. The council bill passed. (listed in the 10/27/20 minutes)

Mayor’s appointments include Enhanced Enterprise Zone Board

Meeting Packet November 10, 2020With silence regarding the COVID Task Force, other appointments continue.

Mayor’s Appointments include Police and Fire Pension Committee

Last week was a hectic week for COVID response with medical staff, hospitals, health facilities, and the Governor’s Office made pleas to local communities to provide leadership and solutions customized for their citizens. 

Regional timeline: 

November 16, 2020 Joplin Mayor Ryan Stanley makes an additional plea for a regional response.

November 17, 2020 Six regional medical centers and health providers plea to area leadership to provide relief to the surge in numbers

November 17, 2020 Webb City, Carl Junction, and Carthage mayors respond to medial pleas with an effort to double down on requests to citizens to be responsible for their own health.

November 17, 2020 City of Joplin, Jasper County and Newton County Health Departments release updated COVID numbers including a total of 161 deaths. This surpassed the Joplin tornado and makes the COVID pandemic the deadliest disaster on record for Southwest Missouri. The discovery was presented in an editorial piece from Joe Hadsall of The Joplin Globe

November 18, 2020 The City of Joplin passes a mask ordinance that requires people to wear masks until February 2021. 

November 19, 2020 Governor Parsons extends a State of Emergency in Missouri until March 31, 2021

November 19, 2020 Mayor Dan Rife issues proclamation “asks residents, business owners, and visitors to abide by the social distancing protocols established by CDC, wash hands often for at least 20 seconds, wear face coverings to help stem the spread of the disease, and get a flu shot.”

In analyzing the rapid response by Mayor Dan Rife in both the joint letter to the hospitals and a proclamation on the day of the Governor’s extension of the State of Emergency, it does not appear that either occasion gave the Mayor time to check in with the City Council or the COVID Task Force before responding. The events prompted several questions, and Carthage News Online emailed a request for additional information, including contact names or minutes for the COVID Task Force to the City of Carthage on Thursday, November 19. The City has not responded to additional emails and a phone call at the time of publication.

The State of Emergency comments by Governor Parsons seem to be a plea to local communities as he states that he will reach out to mayors and commissioners throughout Missouri for additional conversations to help implement appropriate guidance in their communities. Comments in the statement announcing the extension include: “Missouri is at a turning point and if we are going to change the outcome, we must change our behavior.” And “action we take today will determine where we are weeks from now.” Additionally, the Governor noted the limited transmissions in schools with masking policies. It seems the local effort to double down on citizen engagement is in opposition to both the health community and the Governor’s attempt to garner support and empower communities to engage citizens in fighting the virus’s spread.

Carthage City Council meets Tuesday and the agenda lists “Consider and discuss the City’s response to COVID-19 request from Mercy and Freeman Health Systems.” The agenda does not include consideration of a mask ordinance. However, an ordinance was drafted and proposed previously in a special meeting on July 1, 2020 and Chief Dagnan mentioned logistics of enforcing an ordinance as recently as the public safety meeting on November 16. With a drafted ordinance available and infrastructure in place to enforce a mandate, it seems a prime time to consider the mask issue. But again, the absence of such a topic on the agenda speaks volumes as to what the City or Mayor’s priorities are when faced with a pandemic.

At this time, the Mayor and City have failed to respond to requests for additional information. However, in casual inquiries with a few private citizens, the COVID Task Force may have disbanded after one meeting. Some citizens do not expect to have a strategic plan or actionable items for recovery during this Mayor’s term. 2020 has delivered a slate of fast-paced challenges that demand adaptation to survive or thrive; many are frustrated that Carthage continues to “double down” on the status quo.

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