The science behind vaccines in Missouri schools hasn’t changed. But the GOP has

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Though Gov. Mike Parson and other Republicans in our state government in Jefferson City are now fierce and freedom-loving opponents of vaccine mandates, that wasn’t always the case. In fact, only a few years ago Missouri Republicans were ready and willing to take on a public health menace before it became a catastrophe.

As St. Louis Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger noted this weekend, GOP opposition to vaccine mandates is quite a new phenomenon. In 2014, the caucuses of both parties in the Missouri Senate came together to unanimously pass a mandate that students at Missouri colleges had to be vaccinated against meningitis. A couple of college kids had died from outbreaks on campus, and officials wanted to protect young people.

Requiring students to be inoculated against it was a no-brainer.

So what’s changed? Now it’s not about public health, but about politics.

“Any decision to mandate masks for individuals regardless of vaccination status is reckless, concerning, & undermines faith in the vaccine” Parson tweeted a few days ago. (And huh? How could a mandate undermine confidence the resisters don’t have in a vaccine the governor himself has already said is safe and effective?)

Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who is running for Roy Blunt’s Senate seat next year, has filed stunt lawsuits against leaders in Kansas City and St. Louis challenging their mask mandates, at a time when the delta variant is sending more children to the hospital than we’ve seen before during the pandemic.

A huge part of the shift, of course, is that the media landscape of 2021 is so different from that of just seven years ago, and the onslaught of misinformation and disinformation has gotten worse.

“There’s a lot more skepticism, and it’s easier to express that” on social media, said Democratic state Sen. Barbara Anne Washington.

But there’s no denying what has changed the GOP’s positions on public health most since that push to keep our kids safe from meningococcal disease: In 2014, one Donald J. Trump had not yet taken over the Republican Party.

He made open disregard of expert guidance his personal COVID-19 policy. And now politicians wanting to please his base also send mixed messages at best about the masks, vaccines and other measures that we’d need to pull together on to end this pandemic.

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