A needed step toward preventing disease and death

The Examiner

Independence is on the right track with plans to strengthen its Health and Animal Services Department. It reinstated the department months ago after having shelved it, and scattered many of its functions to other departments, in a cost-saving move in 2018.  

The need for an active and robust local public health service is clear, especially in the face of hostility to disease-control measures in Jefferson City and limited attention and resourcing from the federal level. 

Twice in a generation this need has been dramatically laid out. The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 raised America’s awareness of its vulnerability to terrorism, including bioterrorism. The national commission tasked to outline lessons learned from that grim day stressed the pressing need for a strong commitment to public health. But the follow-through has been negligible. 

Now the bumbling response to the COVID-19 pandemic – a failure at the federal and state levels, generally OK locally – has underlined our vulnerabilities with red ink. Hundreds of thousands of Americans have died, numbers that could have and should have been far lower with the widespread embrace of simple steps. 

Put simply, we have to get better at taking prudent steps to head off small, big and potentially catastrophic problems. For a local health department, that means immunizations, animal control, inspecting restaurants and a strong dose of ongoing public education.  

Dr. Ralph Ruckman, chairman of the city’s Advisory Board of Health, has encouraged the City Council to take the objectives of a health department seriously – and the council seems intent to act. 

The next crisis? Ruckman is succinct. 

“We’re still vulnerable to things we don’t know and don’t understand.” 

The state of Missouri is going the wrong direction. The General Assembly this year passed and Gov. Mike Parson signed a particularly poor piece of legislation that limits – limits rather than enhances – the ability of local officials to act in an emergency. 

The governor is dead wrong in his description of things. A year ago, he wouldn’t lift a finger for so much as a mask mandate or a meaningful stay-at-home order. He left the hard work – and the political heat – with local officials. Now he has the gall to complain that local officials went too far. 

We have to hope that the next crisis isn’t very soon and that when it comes the officials in power in Jefferson City at that time will be wiser and less beholden to petty politics – and will immediately scrap this poor policy. 

Right now, the local line of defense is about all we have, but City Council members in Independence appear ready to act on suggestions to move money around in the city budget to enhance the department’s work. 

The country’s public health challenges are significant, and one city cannot solve everything. But you can always do what you yourself can do today, and begin to make things better. You can improve your community. That’s what the city – commendably – is trying to do.