CoxHealth CEO not afraid of losing his job over controversial tweets

Springfield, Mo.-based CoxHealth CEO Steven Edwards has been at the center of several viral tweets over the COVID-19 pandemic. Here, he discussed with Becker's the motivations behind those tweets, the responses to his tweets within hospital walls and the responsibility of being a CEO activist.

In a July 1 tweet, Mr. Edwards said, "If you are making wildly disparaging comments about the vaccine, and have no public health expertise, you may be responsible for someone's death. Shut up."

He was also recently sued for a tweet he made after the mother of a young patient took issue with "COVID" being used as a promo code for free telehealth visits. The woman posted on Facebook saying she didn't want her son associated with the word "COVID," and Mr. Edwards tweeted that the promo code was not "part of a conspiracy theory."

The CEO told Becker's the tweets are necessary to combat misinformation in the county as delta variant cases spread rapidly. He's heard claims not based on facts, such as that the vaccine causes infertility and that masks cause the virus to spread. Even local politicians have ignited misinformation campaigns in his community. 

"A state rep recently said both Anthony Fauci and Bill Gates have worked with the Wuhan center to create the virus," Mr. Edwards said.

The misinformation is spreading as the delta variant takes hold of communities in Missouri.

"In the middle of May, we were at maybe 14 COVID patients a day," he said. "This week, we're at 139 patients. In two weeks it's projected to be at 240. We don't have that capacity for that. It's risen at a rate far, far more rapidly than the original waves of COVID. What probably took seven or eight months to field inpatient volumes happened in seven or eight weeks. That put us on our heels."

For the most part, his tweets have been well-received by his hospital staff and the community, but there is that 5 percent who want him fired, he said.

"There's a state representative, who runs a carwash, who disagrees with our position on vaccines and masking," he said. "He's asked that I be fired, but we don't respond to that sort of thing."

He doesn't take the backlash personally. A metaphor he likes to use is that if you stand between your children and the edge of a cliff, they might be angry, but you don't care, he said. With the unwavering support of his board, there's not much that would stop him from sharing his controversial tweets.

"I'm not worried about losing my job," he said. "I know that slows some people down. But I'm very committed that when we make mistakes in life it's often because we're trying to keep our job, not do our job."

Mr. Edwards wishes he started speaking up sooner. He points to stories written about how the American government handled the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918. The government minimized the severity so it wouldn't undermine war efforts, he said. The Spanish flu infected 500 million people in North America and killed between 50 million and 100 million.

"I'm riddled with guilt, to think that had I pushed harder we might have saved two more lives or three more lives," he said.

He also recognizes that there are added difficulties navigating helming a health system and being an activist. Yet, he will continue to be outspoken on Twitter even after the pandemic ends. 

"I think that's my job," he said. "I think my level of activity seems enhanced because the number of followers has grown so much and so many of my followers are in the media. If you send a message, it does generate stories and spread awareness."

When the COVID-19 pandemic does finally come to an end, he will target social issues such as opioid abuse, access to mental health and smoking ordinance changes.

"I think I'm wired like a conservative hippie because I can't help but be an advocate," he said. "I've got the information and there's a platform. I feel like we have a duty to advocate because maybe it can save lives."

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