For the past year and a half, Garza has been the face of the St. Louis region’s pandemic response, while offering expert advice behind the scenes to hospital leaders and elected officials like St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, former St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, and new Mayor Tishaura O. Jones.
Now he’s going to be practicing his MOS (military occupation code) while being deployed to Kuwait for about a 90-day BOG (boots on the ground). In the Army Reserves, where Garza has served the past two decades, he’s a 62-Alpha (emergency room physician) and he’s headed to a military hospital overseas just as the delta variant ravages southwest Missouri and once again makes the Show-Me State the center of the pandemic storm.
In all the ways that politicians of both parties usually describe heroes, Garza is one. He joined the reserves as a second-year resident in medical school. Since then, he’s put his Catholic faith to action, serving in a variety of civil and military positions, doing a tour in the Iraq War, and another in Africa with a special-forces unit.
He’s taken verbal abuse from fellow veteran Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, because Garza has used his platform to push for the sorts of statewide action on health care orders that Parson has eschewed; the sorts of actions that might have avoided Missouri’s current ignominy as the petri dish with the fastest-rising COVID-19 infections in the nation.
“I thought this was going to be really good timing (for my deployment),” Garza said, “and then the delta variant came along. It’s hard to tell what the state is thinking right now. It’s concerning.”
On the day we talked, Springfield, in deep-red southwest Missouri, was hitting its record for the most hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the entire pandemic. The next day, Parson lashed out at Springfield hospital officials — without naming them — for raising alarm bells. Then, he directed his leaderless health department to tell the federal government that their “agents” were not welcome to go door-to-door in Missouri forcing residents to get vaccines, an idea that had never been contemplated.
By the time the White House was pushing back on Parson’s latest irresponsible action as leader of a state that is one of the worst-performing in the country in terms of vaccinating its population, the chagrined governor was walking back his statements and welcoming the federal help — and financial resources — of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This moment reminds Garza a lot of the beginning of the pandemic. Then, the virus rushed into the state from the coasts, to St. Louis and Kansas City, eventually infecting every county. This time, the hot spot is in rural Missouri, and it’s growing quickly — the delta variant is more “virulent” than the original virus, Garza says — and, without quick action, will hit Missouri’s cities, and spread to the nation.
State government, particularly its Republican leaders, can really help now by being the messengers from whom their voters in rural parts of the state need to hear about the importance of getting a vaccine.
“We need to do everything that we can to get people vaccinated,” Garza says. “We are at risk in the major cities as well. Even though we have the highest vaccinated population in the metropolitan areas, but that still means it’s 40% of a million people that aren’t vaccinated. Our hospitals can still become overwhelmed.”
If that happens, it means a return to the sort of public health measures — masks and social distancing, and canceling big in-person events — that much of the nation has already moved past. Garza hopes that when he returns from his deployment, that isn’t the case.
“This is the No. 1 issue in the state right now,” Garza says. “It’s a little bit disheartening not to see a more aggressive posture from the state. It’s starkly obvious how the pale colors on the vaccination map line up with the rising rates. (Republicans) spent so much energy pushing back on these very common-sense public health measures, now it’s almost too hard to switch course. It’s really difficult for them to go back on their line of thinking. They put the political platform over everything, even over the protection of human life. I don’t understand that. I just don’t.”