Editorial Roundup: Missouri

St. Louis Post-Dispatch. August 23, 2021.

Editorial: Trust is squandered when county pandemic message turns into manipulation

By the Editorial Board

The $2 million contract that St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s administration signed with New York public relations firm Fenton Communications is facing well-deserved scrutiny from the County Council, but members of the public also should be concerned. In the laudable effort to educate the public about the supreme importance of getting vaccinated against the coronavirus, Page’s office and Fenton have engaged in what appear to be deceptive and manipulative practices.

There are multiple problems with the Fenton contract. First and foremost is that it was planned and executed without prior County Council approval — all because the council unwisely decided in April 2020 to cede blanket spending authority to Page for $173.5 million in federal Safe Act pandemic funds. Although the council’s decision helped streamline procedures during a health emergency, it allowed Page to spend as he pleased without prior oversight.

Another problem is that Page has been in a state of perpetual campaigning for office since taking over from disgraced former County Executive Steve Stenger. While Page speaks with the county executive’s authority in rallying public support to combat the coronavirus, he’s also busy marketing himself as “Dr. Sam Page,” an anesthesiologist speaking with medical authority on important health issues. Page sends out weekly emails touting his pandemic-fighting efforts. But only careful readers will note the fine print at the bottom: “Paid for by Page for Missouri” — his political campaign.

When a New York public relations firm suddenly gets a high-dollar contract to echo the contents of Page’s campaign emails, the public and County Council have every reason to start asking questions. It should be doubly concerning if Fenton and Page’s staffers are colluding to hide Fenton’s role in shaping the message and submitting New York professionals’ handiwork as having been authored by good ol’ regular folks here in St. Louis.

That’s how an op-ed appeared on our July 6 page under the byline “Kate McLaughlin,” identified as a Webster Groves High School graduate heading for Loyola University Chicago. She talked about all the challenges of being a student during the pandemic, expressing her fears about getting sick and how relieved she was when the vaccine became available. It ended with her recommendation “that all of my friends, classmates, and anyone else” get vaccinated — the precise message Fenton was hired to convey.

Exactly one week after publication, Fenton sent an invoice to the county listing what it called “earned media” under the contract. Fenton claimed to have “drafted” (written) various local op-eds. One bulleted item states that the company “Interviewed Kate McLaughlin, high school student in St. Louis, to develop her story and drafted op-ed.”

Christopher Ave, communications director for the county health department, submitted it to us with no mention of Fenton’s role even though Page’s office and Fenton were fully aware we would not accept supposedly locally written op-eds submitted from New York. We had no reason to suspect that Ave, a former Post-Dispatch editor, would be party to such a deceptive workaround. We requested an accounting from him and await a response.

Sadly, we were fooled, as apparently were other local news organizations. Such manipulative practices only serve to undermine public trust at a time when credibility is everything in the effort to fight ignorance and defeat the coronavirus.

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Jefferson City News-Tribune. August 21, 2021.

Editorial: State must expedite screening program

The federally backed program to offer schools COVID-19 screening is being billed as an important resource for schools to safely open to in-person instruction this fall.

The federally backed program to offer schools COVID-19 screening is being billed as an important resource for schools to safely open to in-person instruction this fall.

However, Missouri’s health and elementary and secondary education departments need to redouble their efforts to have the program running by next week when many schools start for the fall.

The Missouri Independent reported it’s unclear whether the program will be ready by then.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is offering the program to public, private and charter K-12 schools. It’s working with the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Participating students, staff and teachers would submit to regular weekly testing — regardless if they are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms — as a means to help schools identify positive cases early, according to a story by the Missouri Independent. Those tests then would be processed as a batch by a lab, rather than individually. If the result is positive, then each person would be tested individually to identify the positive case.

The state health department and DESE are “very close” to finalizing an emergency contract for a vendor to operate the program for the first half-year, a health department spokesman told the news agency.

A DHSS spokesman also said the department anticipates the program will launch shortly after the contract is executed.

The Missouri Independent reported schools would apply to participate in the program.

The program would facilitate pooled testing and offer a testing manager, supplies, a software platform to track results and more. Examples of its use in DHSS’ guide of the program include testing classrooms as a cohort, regular testing of children younger than 12 years old who aren’t yet eligible to take Pfizer’s vaccine or helping facilitate safe participation in extracurriculars like sports or band, the news agency reported.

The CDC said the program is central to its guidance for the reopening of schools.

We also believe the program could be a valuable tool toward fighting this pandemic. As a nation, we’ve spent large sums of money on programs that only indirectly target COVID-19. Programs such as this will have a direct impact at tackling this pandemic.

We urge DESE and DHSS to expedite the contract so the program can begin. We also urge schools to consider participating.

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Kansas City Star. August 24, 2021.

Editorial: A 2-year-old was kidnapped from Kansas City. Why wasn’t statewide Amber Alert issued?

Two-year-old Khalecia Richards is lucky to be alive after being kidnapped — by accident, as it turned out — by a car thief who apparently didn’t know she was in the back seat when he drove away from a convenience store near Linwood Boulevard and Indiana Avenue in Kansas City.

But a week later, law enforcement officials still can’t explain why no Amber Alert was issued last Tuesday, and that’s an issue.

By the Kansas City Police Department’s own admission, Khalecia’s disappearance fit all of the criteria for such an alert. Those include having detailed information on the victim and suspect, a reasonable belief that an abduction has occurred and a credible threat of serious bodily injury or death to someone 17 or younger.

Police officials in Kansas City were in communication with the Missouri Highway Patrol when the child was located so the alert was no longer needed, a spokesman for the highway patrol said. But she had been missing for 90 minutes by then, so why the delay in relaying the information to the public?

A child is most likely to be killed within three hours of an abduction, a United States Department of Justice study on child abduction homicides found.

Amber Alerts exist for a reason, and unnecessary delays in exchanging information put missing children in further danger.

Her abduction was reported around 5:40 p.m. on Aug. 17. Kansas City police were still in the process of requesting a statewide Amber Alert when the child was recovered about 7:20 p.m. in a back yard near North Fifth Street and Walker Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas.

New information was coming in by the minute, Kansas City police officials said. But nearly an hour passed between the time the girl was reported missing and even a local media alert went out.

Though police lucked out this time, the KCPD must work out whatever communication problems kept critical information on Khalecia’s disappearance from being sent out to the public.

That police just didn’t get it done is a fact, but it’s not the explanation that her family deserves.

END