The most important job of any government is protecting its citizens. By that standard, Missouri’s coronavirus response has been — and remains — a failure. Only 55% of Missourians over age 18 have received at least one dose of vaccine; just under half of Missourians are fully vaccinated. By comparison, the U.S. average is 66% of the population with at least one shot. Some 13 states have 70% or more of their populations fully vaccinated.

Among Missouri’s most vulnerable population, the track record is even worse. At least 20% of Missouri’s seniors have yet to receive a single coronavirus vaccination — this more than six months after immunization efforts began. Among African Americans in the state, just 1 in 4 residents has received at least one vaccine dose, and 23% are fully vaccinated.

The pandemic has killed more than 600,000 Americans and at least 9,300 Missourians since early 2020. It is the greatest public health challenge in a century. The fact that this deadly challenge is being met with such a ho-hum response by the state’s leadership should be appalling to all Missourians.

While the state lags in immunizations — just 10 states have lower vaccination rates — the new, more contagious delta variant has begun spreading in the southwest part of the state. That’s a recipe for a third-wave disaster in the fall.

Most of the states lagging in coronavirus vaccinations are, like Missouri, states in the South with Republican-controlled legislatures. Following the lead of the Trump administration, political leaders in those states spent months downplaying the seriousness of the epidemic and trying to undo public health protections to prevent the spread of disease like social distancing and masking.

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Now, vaccines are available. They are key to strong economic and social recovery. But political leaders who invested so much denying the pandemic are finding it difficult to change gears and urge residents to be vaccinated. Even when they do, residents are ignoring the mixed messaging and refusing the jab.

Some, including Gov. Mike Parson, have mistakenly argued that vaccinations are a personal choice. But there’s no choice for the thousands of Missourians with weakened immune systems who cannot receive an immunization. Many will die unless the rest can achieve herd immunity. Doctors say that requires 70% to 90% immunization rates. Missouri is far short of that level.

As the nation gets on with vaccinations and returns to work, Missouri’s anemic response will become an economic development issue. Why would any company expand operations in a state where workers and their families are unvaccinated and vulnerable to every new variant?

Indeed, Parson and the Republican-controlled legislature have acted as if the pandemic’s existence was still open to debate. That’s proved to be a losing strategy.

The time is now to redouble vaccination efforts — or get ready for a long and deadly fall.

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