Missouri recorded its first positive case of what was then known as “the novel coronavirus” on March 7, 2020. Two years later, the virus persists throughout the Show-Me State, the U.S. and the world.
In those 24 months, COVID-19 has infected more than a million Missourians and taken the lives of thousands. More than a health crisis, the pandemic brought with it a tumultuous saga of government action and inaction, political conflict and crucial decision-making by state and local institutions.
The most recent surge in cases, which forced school closures in late January as the omicron variant spread, has largely subsided. Government restrictions have nearly all been lifted and case rates at local hospitals have fallen significantly.
“We are in a nice trough, possibly between waves,” CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards wrote Monday on Twitter. Although he and other experts continue to monitor increasing case counts elsewhere, “This is a moment to enjoy safely with currently low Covid disease rates.”
In this period of calm, the News-Leader has taken the opportunity to review key moments from two years of reporting: The compiled entries (which link to additional coverage on News-Leader.com), cover major legislative, executive and local policy decisions; notable quotes from elected officials and health leaders; and seasonal death and vaccination counts.
With the benefit of hindsight, the resulting timeline paints a more complete picture of how government in Missouri responded to the pandemic.
To navigate to specific time periods, click on the links below:
Cumulative COVID-19 death totals in Missouri are based on data from the Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins University. Vaccination rates are according to data from the Centers of Disease Control & Prevention.
Spring 2020: ‘I am confident that Missouri is well-equipped’
March 7: Missouri records its first presumptive positive case of COVID-19, a woman in her 20s in St. Louis County.
March 12: Leaders in the Missouri House offer dueling responses on the state’s preparation for the virus. Democratic Minority Leader Crystal Quade says Missouri is “wildly behind.” Republican House Speaker Elijah Haahr says the chamber is focused on passing its annual budget, arguing it is too early to make “dramatic policy changes.”
Gov. Mike Parson declines to declare a state of emergency and focuses his messaging on individual responsibility. “I am confident that Missouri is well-equipped to deal with the coronavirus,” he says.
March 13: Parson declares a state of emergency, freeing state money to ratchet up testing capabilities.
March 16: Parson recommends a pause on public gatherings of more than 50 people. A number of school districts, including Springfield Public Schools — the state’s largest — shut down for two weeks in an extended spring break.
March 18: The state records its first death from COVID-19 in mid-Missouri’s Boone County.
March 19: Parson says all Missouri public schools have temporarily closed, sending home over 900,000 students.
March 21: Parson orders a statewide pause on gatherings of more than 10 people.
March 26: Unemployment claims in Missouri jump tenfold from the week prior as the virus prompts layoffs and business shutdowns.
April 1: Parson freezes $176 million in the state budget, with the biggest cuts hitting state colleges and universities.
April 3: Parson issues a statewide stay-at-home order with few changes from his previous small gatherings order. “Now more than ever, we must all make sacrifices,” he says.
April 9: State lawmakers approve spending more than $6 billion to aid in the state’s COVID-19 response, much of which would come from the federal government. Parson orders all public schools to close their buildings for the remainder of the school year.
April 15: Missourians begin to receive $1,200 stimulus checks from the federal CARES Act. Parson says he would not allow everyone to vote absentee in June’s elections, despite requests from local elections officials.
April 16: Parson extends the state’s social distancing order until May 3.
April 21: Attorney General Eric Schmitt sues the Chinese government over COVID-19, claiming the nation’s top officials are to blame for the virus.
Springfield and Greene County extend their stay-at-home order until May 4. “The worst thing we could do right now is to totally open up,” Springfield Mayor Ken McClure says.
April 28: Parson says the state’s gathering limits will soon end and allows all businesses to reopen, expressing confidence that the timing to do so is right.
April 30: Springfield and Greene County allow gatherings up to 15 people and for most businesses to reopen. “We’re better prepared, we have better tools and we’re no longer flying blind,” health director Clay Goddard says.
May 15, 2020: Missouri lawmakers adjourn their annual legislative session after taking almost a month off due to virus concerns. In addition to emergency pandemic legislation, Republican priorities also make it to the governor’s desk.
As May ends, 581 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
Summer 2020: ‘We are not overwhelmed’
June 1: Parson freezes another $209 million in state spending, with the majority of the cuts again coming from public schools, colleges and universities.
June 4: Springfield’s Mayor McClure praises local leaders for their pandemic response in a livestreamed “State of the City” address, but says “inequities laid bare” in recent months “make it painfully clear how far we are from a truly inclusive democracy.”
June 13: Parson lifts statewide virus restrictions, calling it “time to begin repairing our economy and getting Missouri citizens back on their feet and back to work,” ostensibly leaving enforcement to local governments.
June 24: Parson says a new spike in cases does not indicate a rising threat to the state. “We are not overwhelmed, we are not currently experiencing a second wave, and we have no intentions of closing Missouri back down at this point in time,” he says.
June 30: Parson cuts another $459 million from the state budget, totaling around $844 million in cuts since the beginning of the pandemic. The cuts again center on K-12 and higher education.
July 5: Local officials in Missouri hot spots say there’s little need to intervene, even as cases and hospitalizations surge. One Newton County commissioner said “things are getting back to normal,” another in McDonald County said “everything as far as I’m concerned is doing just fine,” and a third, in Jasper County, said he thinks the virus is “just going to have to run its course.”
July 11: State health director Randall Williams urges young people to take more precautions, including social distancing and wearing masks.
July 18: Parson attends a campaign event without a mask on. He tells supporters “you don’t need government to tell you to wear a dang mask. If you want to wear a dang mask, wear a mask.”
July 28: Springfield City Council votes to take $2.7 million out of the health department’s emergency fund to help fund contact tracing and data analysis efforts.
Aug. 11: Williams briefs state lawmakers on the state’s plan to open schools for the fall, saying there is the capacity to adequately administer COVID-19 tests. Springfield Public Schools, the state’s largest district, starts the year with the majority of students learning virtually.
Aug. 13: McClure, in Springfield, asks Parson to mandate masks statewide. “A united, statewide approach would be the best approach to stem the surge of COVID-19 and return Missouri to normal,” he writes in a letter.
Aug. 16: The White House COVID-19 task force recommends Missouri adopt a statewide mask mandate. Parson, whose office receives weekly reports from the task force, disregards the recommendation.
Aug. 25: Missouri begins to increase weekly unemployment payouts by $300 under federal executive order.
Aug. 28: State and local officials say they won’t follow Trump administration guidance to test non-symptomatic people less. Williams says “that’s not the path that I would set out on.”
At the end of August, 1,547 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
Fall/Winter 2020: ‘We know that COVID-19 is not going away soon’
Sept. 23: Gov. Parson and First Lady Teresa Parson test positive for COVID-19. The governor says in a recorded video he feels fine and has “no symptoms of any kind.”
Oct. 16: Missouri submits its vaccine rollout plan to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention. Its first phase prioritizes health care workers, before expanding to at-risk populations and then the remainder of the state.
Nov. 3: Parson wins re-election, defeating State Auditor Nicole Galloway for his first full term as governor. Republicans sweep statewide office races and maintain supermajorities in both statehouse chambers.
Nov. 12: Parson relaxes quarantine guidelines for teachers and students who are exposed to COVID-19 but do not test positive. Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven says the quarantines could have “unintended consequences” for families, schools and the economy. “We know that COVID-19 is not going away soon,” Parson says.
Nov. 16: An outbreak among members and staff of the Missouri Senate delays plans for the chamber to approve and send to Parson’s desk an emergency spending plan to allocate federal relief money. The week prior, Senate Republicans had gathered for a retreat at Big Cedar Lodge in Branson.
Dec. 2: The Missouri Senate approves a plan to allocate $1.3 billion in federal dollars, around $750 million of which will go toward pandemic relief efforts. Parson signs off on the plan.
Dec. 3: Missouri and the state hospital association announce a contract with the Texas staffing firm Vizient to bring in additional nurses and medical staff.
Dec. 7: A report commissioned by the state finds that the Missouri Veterans Commission failed to recognize and respond to COVID-19 outbreaks, resulting in an “inadequate” virus response within veterans homes in the state.
Dec. 8: Springfield and Greene County stop publishing daily death totals, moving to weekly totals due to surging fatalities from the virus.
Dec. 14: Missourians begin getting vaccinated against COVID-19 as boxes of doses arrive at hospitals around the state. “It’s really exciting,” says Mercy Springfield nurse Wanda Brown. “We’re making history.”
Dec. 19: Rural hospitals in Missouri struggle to find beds for patients. Executives tell the News-Leader they sometimes spend hours on the phone trying to find care for those who need it. “It doesn’t just impact COVID patients, it impacts any patient coming to any facility with a need for an ICU bed,” one said.
Dec. 24: Greene County distributes the last of CARES Act federal money to businesses and organizations. The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce receives the largest payment, at $536,600.
As 2020 ends, 5,694 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
2021: ‘We have been working day in and day out’
Jan. 6: State lawmakers return to Jefferson City, with Democrats and some Republicans masked. One priority for some lawmakers is passing legislation to protect businesses from COVID-related lawsuits.
Jan. 14: Missouri begins vaccinating first responders and at-risk individuals, including those over 65.
Jan. 27: Parson delivers his State of the State address, touting the state’s virus response and acknowledging the death toll and those hospitalized. “The bottom line is that we have been working day in and day out to fight COVID-19,” he said.
Feb. 1: Large-scale vaccine clinics will be held around the state in the coming weeks, Parson says.
Feb. 18: CoxHealth’s specialized COVID-19 ICU is emptied for the first time in seven months. The unit had seen about a third of the hospital’s roughly 3,000 patients from the virus and had been the site of between 80 and 90 percent of deaths.
Parson says he received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
As February ends, 7,997 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
4.26 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated.
Spring 2021: ‘We are well ahead of schedule’
March 1: Parson reverses the last of the cuts he earlier made to the 2020-21 budget, citing an improved economy.
March 18: Vaccines will be open to all Missourians by April 9, Parson announces, starting “Phase 2” of the state’s rollout plan. “With progress we’re currently seeing and vaccine supply expected to increase significantly in the coming weeks, we are well ahead of schedule,” he says.
April 6: Springfield Mayor McClure is re-elected, fending off a challenge from candidate Marcus Aton, who made the city’s response to the pandemic central to his campaign.
April 19: Missouri’s state-run vaccine tracker program receives an update, streamlining the process to schedule an appointment that previously required signing up separately through some local health department systems.
April 20: State health director Dr. Randall Williams resigns after four years in Jefferson City and 15 months leading Missouri’s COVID-19 response. No reason is given for his departure, and Parson’s office does not release further details. Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff, is named acting director.
April 25: Eighty percent of Missouri teachers feel more stressed than ever and a portion have felt “personally attacked” by decision-making during the pandemic, according to a statewide survey.
May 4: Springfield City Council unanimously ends most outdoor masking rules inside city limits.
May 11: Parson says Missouri will cut off federal unemployment benefits in June, arguing the extra money has “incentivized people to stay out of the workforce.” Quade, the leader of House Democrats, calls that sentiment “an offensive right-wing myth.”
May 17: Springfield City Council unanimously ends the city’s mask mandate, effective May 27, the city’s school district’s final day.
At the end of May, 9,271 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
32.87 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated.
Summer 2021: ‘There was no playbook’
June 15: Parson signs a bill restricting local health departments’ power to issue and extend public health orders, as well as banning any requirement to show proof of vaccination on public transportation. He says “there was overreach on the local levels” in response to the pandemic, and “there’s going to be consequences to that.”
June 21: A new variant of COVID-19, the more contagious delta variant, begins to surge in Springfield, accounting for an estimated 90 percent of new cases and bringing national news coverage to southwest Missouri.
July 7: Parson signs a bill protecting businesses against lawsuits related to COVID-19, requiring those suing to prove the businesses “engaged in recklessness or willful misconduct” that led to virus exposure.
July 8: Federal health officials arrive in southwest Missouri to aid local authorities in curbing the delta variant surge. Parson characterizes the action as “sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination,” which “would NOT be an effective OR a welcome strategy in Missouri!”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki calls such language “a disservice to the country” and to those urging for vaccination.
July 21: Parson appoints longtime Illinois health director Donald Kauerauf as Missouri’s new health director. Kauerauf says he believes Missouri “has (followed) the CDC playbook” and that his job is to “increase … the ability for Missouri to respond to COVID.”
Parson announces a new vaccine lottery program, with 180 total winners claiming $10,000 over the next two months.
July 22: Emergency ambulance teams and equipment will be sent to Greene County, Parson says, to aid in transporting COVID-19 patients.
July 23: Acting director Katie Towns is named permanent health director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department.
July 27: Parson praises the state’s COVID-19 response in remarks to Springfield-area business leaders. “There was no playbook that you could turn around and say, ‘this is what you do in a crisis like this,'” he says.
July 29: Springfield and Greene County withdraw a previous request for the state to set up a field hospital to treat additional COVID-19 patients. One hospital says the withdrawal was not “because the need is not great. It is because we needed to serve patients quickly.”
Aug. 6: Missouri sends FEMA ambulance teams around the state to transport COVID-19 patients to less full hospitals after a request from the state.
Aug. 24: Attorney General Schmitt files a class-action lawsuit against Missouri school districts with mask mandates. The move is criticized by districts, one of which says it will “waste taxpayer dollars and resources.”
Members of Springfield City Council condemn comparisons made by local citizens comparing COVID-19 vaccinations to the Holocaust.
By the end of July, 10,827 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
44.64 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated.
Fall/Winter 2021: ‘Public health decisions are left to the people’
Sept. 5: Internal emails and documents obtained by the News-Leader through public records requests illustrate frustration and desperation among southwest Missouri officials as they sought help from the state during the delta variant surge. “I get the distinct impression … that DHSS is at best dragging its feet at worst throwing roadblocks,” a Greene County official wrote to a hospital executive. “I have been told they want nothing to do with the word COVID,” the executive wrote back.
Sept. 10: Missouri Republicans blast new federal vaccine requirements, with lawmakers asking Parson to call a special session to legislate on the matter. Parson says the orders are “seeking to dictate personal freedom and private business decisions.”
Sept. 14: Kauerauf, the new health director, tells lawmakers he wants to fight misinformation on COVID-19 and vaccines. “We failed, as a nation, public health because we got to this point,” he says.
Oct. 2: Emergency ambulance teams transported southwest Missouri patients across state lines and throughout the entire state, according to a News-Leader analysis. The teams made over 200 trips within their first 13 days on the ground.
Oct. 6: Greene County reports its first child to die of COVID-19, a teenage boy.
Oct. 28: Parson and Schmitt push back against vaccine requirements for federal contractors, with the governor issuing a largely symbolic executive order and the attorney general filing a lawsuit. “In the state of Missouri, public health decisions are left to the people to either make their own personal decisions or speak through their elected representatives in the General Assembly,” Parson says.
Nov. 5: Schmitt sues the Biden administration over new vaccination guidelines for businesses with more than 100 employees. Days later, he files a separate lawsuit over similar requirements for health care workers.
Nov. 19: A change is made in how the Department of Health and Senior Services reports and tracks COVID-19 deaths; it now includes those whose diagnosis was confirmed by rapid tests, adding 2,771 fatalities to Missouri’s total. They are referred to by the department as “probable” COVID-19 deaths.
Nov. 29: A federal judge blocks the Biden administration from mandating vaccination for health care workers, siding with Missouri and several other states.
Dec. 4: Missouri reports its first case of the omicron variant; the delta variant remains the prominent strain among new cases.
Dec. 9: Springfield Public Schools says its mask mandate will remain in place until January as originally planned, declining a request by Schmitt to immediately repeal it.
Rural Missouri health departments begin to halt “all COVID-19 related work” after Schmitt sends them letters ordering them to comply with his interpretation of a recent court order. “While this is a huge concern for our agency, we have no other option but to follow the orders of the Missouri Attorney General at this time,” one writes.
Dec. 23: Springfield Public Schools drops its mask mandate, citing a letter from Schmitt ordering the district to do so.
As 2021 ends, 16,225 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
53.44 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated.
2022: ‘We were the ones in the arena’
Jan. 1: Parson ends Missouri’s state of emergency relating to the pandemic.
Jan. 3: Springfield Public Schools resumes classes with an optional masking policy.
Jan. 5: State lawmakers convene for their legislative session, meeting amid a new surge propelled by the omicron variant. Masks are not required in the state capitol; a number of Republican-led bills aim to ban vaccination mandates.
Jan. 13: Ruling against Missouri, the U.S. Supreme Court allows the Biden administration’s health care worker vaccine mandate to take effect.
Jan. 19: Parson again touts the state’s COVID-19 response in his State of the State address. “While there will always be endless critics to tell us how we could have done it better, the facts are we were the ones in the arena,” he says.
Jan. 21: School districts around Missouri begin to close due to staffing shortages and student infections, with some switching to virtual learning and some entirely shutting down for several days.
Jan. 24: The state health department asks non-urgent patients to avoid emergency rooms as hospitals strain to accommodate the omicron surge.
Jan. 28: The Springfield school board votes 4-3 to reject a temporary mask mandate.
Feb. 2: State health director Donald Kauerauf resigns after his confirmation process is derailed by a group of conservative senators who don’t believe he is adequately anti-abortion and take issue with his encouragement of vaccines. Parson calls the events “nothing short of disgraceful.”
Feb. 18: Colleges and universities in southwest Missouri say they will suspend their masking requirements after Presidents Day.
March 1: Parson taps longtime DHSS official Paula Nickelson as the new acting state health director. She is the fourth person to hold the role since the pandemic began.
According to numbers released March 14, a total of 19,546 Missourians have died from COVID-19.
66.07 percent of those eligible are fully vaccinated.
Galen Bacharier covers Missouri politics & government for the News-Leader. Contact him at email@example.com, (573) 219-7440 or on Twitter @galenbacharier.