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CoxHealth's CEO, a vocal and stalwart leader through the pandemic, announces retirement

 Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth.
Steve Edwards, president and CEO of CoxHealth, plans to retire in May, 2022.

CoxHealth CEO Steve Edwards, who emerged early in the pandemic as one of the region’s most vocal and stalwart leaders, is retiring.

Edwards announced his retirement plans in a letter to employees Friday morning.

"Immediately after retiring, I plan to spend most of my time with my family, who have stood by me even though the demands of the pandemic tried to pull me away from them. Beyond caring for them, I will spend much time cycling, backpacking, kayaking, fishing and generally being more carefree," Edwards said in the letter.

Sounding the alarm on a new virus

Edwards has been part of the CoxHealth leadership team since 1992. But it was his early and bold warnings about the novel coronavirus, and later his transparency on what was happening inside his hospital's Covid wards, that brought him national recognition and accolades—as well as the ire of pandemic deniers and anti-vaccine protesters.

In early 2020, before the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, Edwards took to his Twitter feed to sound the alarm, based in part on the dire situation he saw unfolding in Italy.

In March, 2020, the same month Greene County confirmed its first Covid positive case, Edwards oversaw the construction of a new, 51-bed Covid ICU ward out of a mere concrete shell—a task that was completed in an astonishing two weeks' time.

By late March, 2020, Edwards was also calling for a shelter-in-place mandate, a step Greene County and Missouri health officials were, at the time, hesitant to take.

“I strongly feel a need for that because we've looked at the modeling data. And if you act like Italy did, which they moderated these social protective measures gradually over time, the log of that curve rose too fast,” Edwards told KSMU Radio on March 24, 2020.

“I'm the administrator. I push paper for a living. So, you know, I don't do anything inspiring. But I will tell you that if you walk around this hospital, there is this energy and adrenaline and preparedness that reminds me of what it must have been for people that were ready to land on Normandy. They are ready for a fight,” Edwards said in that March, 2020 interview with KSMU.

Leaning on metaphor, Edwards predicted that the impact of the new virus was "going to be a long winter," rather than a "blizzard."

In city council meetings, public forums, and weekly press conferences, Edwards and CoxHealth's infectious disease specialist, Dr. Robin Trotman, dispelled misinformation and pushed for local and state policies that would better protect hospital staff from becoming overwhelmed.

Throughout the pandemic, Edwards has Tweeted his hospital's Covid data dashboard, illuminating the virus's impact on the region's sickest patients and the strain on health care staff, ambulances and facilities. He was an early and forceful advocate for a statewide masking policy, at times confronting Missouri Governor Mike Parson directly when the two leaders disagreed.

  CoxHealth President and CEO Steve Edwards, left, and Dr. Robin Trotman, center, speak with Gov. Mike Parson at Cox Medical Center in Springfield on Oct. 23, 2020.
CoxHealth president and CEO Steve Edwards, left, and Dr. Robin Trotman, center, speak with Gov. Mike Parson at Cox Medical Center in Springfield on Oct. 23, 2020.

And as the Delta variant began to wreak havoc on the mostly unvaccinated Ozarks region earlier this year, Edwards made the rounds on the national news media to implore other areas of the country, particularly those with low vaccination rates, to prepare.

His calls for emergency public health mandates and support of the vaccine were often met with resistance—and at times, ridicule—in a part of the country long known for its independent spirit and lack of trust in authority.

"The Ozarks is my home. I realize we can be stubborn people. Please vaccinate," Edwards tweeted on June 21, 2021 alongside a graphic revealing yet another troubling spike in hospitalizations in southwest Missouri.

Self-identifying as a "conservative," Edwards urged his community to not politicize the pandemic.

In August, an anti-vaccine protester confronted Edwards in a CoxHealth parking lot, thrusting a handful of paperwork in the CEO's hands while accusing him of "crimes against humanity" for his advocacy of the Covid-19 vaccine.

As the protester continued his rant, Edwards calmly tossed the papers in a nearby trash can and stood guard at the hospital's entrance as he awaited the arrival of safety officials.

Recognition for leadership

Edwards was named the 2020 Humanitarian of the Year by the Community Foundation of the Ozarks, and he received the Visionary Leadership Award from the Missouri Hospital Association. During the height of the pandemic, a survey of emergency room doctors named Edwards the top hospital administrator in the United States.

“While Steve has always been recognized as a leader in the health community, he used his position, education, business acumen and personal contacts — at great personal and professional risk — to lead our community through the COVID-19 crisis,” said community volunteer Morey Mechlin when Edwards received the CFO's top honor.

In his letter Friday, Edwards shared he was diagnosed with cancer in the past year, and that he is recovering well from a related surgery.

He also addressed the future leadership of the nonprofit healthcare organization.

"Our Board has established a search committee to find our next leader. I believe this person can be found from within, but that is a decision for our board to make. I have profound respect for our Board of Directors, and I have been honored to serve them," Edwards said in the letter.

According to its website, CoxHealth operates six hospitals and more than 85 clinics, employing more than 12,500 people.

Edwards said his last day will be May 31, 2022. On that day, he said he plans to don a t-shirt and shorts and work with the CoxHealth grounds crew, which is how he began his career with the organization.