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Policies in Missouri and Arkansas undermine efforts for residents to take the COVID-19 pandemic seriously, a Washington, D.C., think tank found.

The Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank created in 1986, focuses on the needs of low- and middle-income workers in economic policy discussions, according to its website.

An EPI blog post on Wednesday pointed out as the COVID-19 delta variant spreads across the country, and hospitalizations rise, states with low vaccination rates — such as Missouri and Arkansas — have become more vulnerable to economic disruption.

"Both Missouri and Arkansas are lagging behind the country in COVID-19 vaccinations, the primary factor in lowering the risk of hospitalization," the post states.

It points out more than 47 percent, according to the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services, of Missouri residents have initiated vaccinations. And in Arkansas, only 45 percent of residents have initiated vaccinations, according to the post. It notes border counties between the states have much lower numbers.

Only 19.6 percent of residents of McDonald County (in extreme southwestern Missouri) have initiated vaccinations; only 15.4 percent have completed vaccinations. Ripley, Douglas, Reynolds and other counties show similar data on the Missouri website.

Counties in other rural parts of Missouri — Carter County for example (23.4 percent initiated and 21.7 percent completed vaccinations) in extreme northeastern Missouri — also have extremely low vaccination rates.

"The policies in these states today also undermine efforts to take the pandemic seriously and reduce the spread of COVID-19. Both states have eliminated mask mandates," the post says.

In Missouri, Kansas City and St. Louis have implemented indoor mask mandates in an attempt to slow the spread of the disease, but Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt sued St. Louis over the move and has vowed to sue Kansas City, too.

In Arkansas, a law going into effect prohibits state leaders from implementing mask mandates and declaring public health emergencies, according to EPI.

"The policy also prohibits local governments from enforcing mask mandates, though private businesses are permitted to require masks if they choose," it said.

Policymakers, the organization said, should take actions to deal with the uptick in economic disruption the summer surge in cases will cause.

The Missouri Legislature should approve funding for Medicaid expansion voters approved in 2020, it states. The Missouri Supreme Court overturned lower court rulings that the Legislature was not required to fund the expanded program.

Three women who were newly eligible for Medicaid sued after Parson, a Republican, refused to implement the extended program because the Legislature didn't set aside money for it in the budget. The Supreme Court left it to the lower court (presided over by Cole County Circuit Court Judge Jon Beetem) "to enter judgement of the plaintiffs" and determine injunctive relief.

EPI also called on Missouri to restore federal pandemic unemployment insurance benefits.

"The economic situation in Missouri is likely to get worse before it gets better," the post said. "Even if the state does not mandate lockdowns or similar measures, a resurgence of COVID-19 cases will slow economic activity in many ways."

The state decided to stop receiving federal unemployment aid in June because too many jobs were going unfilled shortly after state senators held hearings concerning aggressive collection actions the Missouri Department of Labor and Industrial Relations took to recover unemployment benefits mistakenly overpaid during the pandemic.

Late last week, the state began notifying federal unemployment recipients how they can apply for waivers for the overpayments.

Arkansas ended its participation in extended federal unemployment benefits shortly after Missouri.

"The final step Arkansas and Missouri policymakers should take is enacting paid sick leave," the EPI said. "Workers exposed to COVID-19 should not have to choose between working while sick or being unable to pay their bills."

During the earlier wave of the pandemic (in 2020), EPI said, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided some sick leave for workers at businesses employing fewer than 500 people, but the provisions expired at the end of the year.

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