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Health & Wealth
KBIA’s Health & Wealth Desk covers the economy and health of rural and underserved communities in Missouri and beyond. The team produces a weekly radio segment, as well as in-depth features and regular blog posts. The reporting desk is funded by a grant from the University of Missouri, and the Missouri Foundation for Health.Contact the Health & Wealth desk.

New Vaccine Distribution Plan Prioritizes Hospitals

Sebastián Martínez Valdivia
A sign directs visitors to the MU Healthcare vaccine clinic at Faurot Field in Columbia.

Missouri’s vaccine rollout has been one of the slowest in the nation according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Now, the Parson administration is looking to change that by routing vaccine distribution through some 30 major hospitals across the state.

The state Department of Health and Senior Services is sending more than half of its weekly federal allocation of 76,000 doses to those hospitals in a bid to streamline the process.

According to Missouri Hospital Association spokesperson Dave Dillon, putting hospitals in charge makes sense. “We’re structured to do this kind of work," Dillon said. "Many of our hospital systems can use multiple hospitals as platforms and they also have very strong community connections.”

The state selected hospitals capable of carrying out 5,000 vaccinations a week, although the actual allocations may be lower. Dillon says hospitals will be vaccinating more than just their own patients and holding major community-wide vaccination events.

The state divided up doses by highway patrol region, selecting one or two hospitals in each region to receive the doses on alternating weeks. In Region F, the subdivision that covers 13 counties in mid-Missouri, the hospital system selected for the first week was MU Health Care.

Credit Sebastián Martínez Valdivia / KBIA
A sign instructs patients at MU Health Care's COVID-19 vaccine clinic at Faurot Field in Columbia.

Mary Beck, chief nursing officer at MU Health Care, says the system plans on using its 4,000 doses to vaccinate people who have filled out an online eligibility survey it published last month. “It’s a very, I think, reasonable plan for how they’re distributing higher doses for mass vaccination clinics,” Beck said. 

MU Health plans on carrying out vaccinations on Thursday and Saturday at a special clinic it has set up at Faurot Field. Beck says there’s a little more predictability with the state’s new distribution model. “Early on when we were focused highly on healthcare workers we were getting about 2,000 doses a week," Beck explained. "But that has varied — some weeks we didn’t get anything.”

In addition to the 53 percent of weekly shipments sent to selected hospitals, the state is reserving just under a quarter for its own mass vaccination events. Those events, facilitated by the Missouri National Guard have also been divided up by region. The first region F event took place in Mexico last week, and the next will be staged in Jefferson City.

The state hasn’t said exactly how it chose those locations, and some 900 doses went unused after the Mexico event, according to the Audrain County Health Department. That has left some local health officials, like Columbia/Boone County Public Health and Human Services assistant director Scott Clardy, in a bind. 

“So what’s happening is that we have a lot of citizens upset with us because they don’t understand why Audrain County is getting one and why Cole county is getting one, and one hasn’t been to Boone County yet,” Clardy said. He has to explain to callers that his department doesn't have control over where those state-organized events occur. 

The new allocation model has left some vaccinators, including the county health department, with even more uncertainty when it comes to getting vaccines. The new plan leaves around 6,000 doses a week to divy up between some 114 public health agencies across the state.

For Clardy, who worked for the state health department during the H1N1 pandemic, the COVID-19 vaccine rollout has been unrecognizable. “This is different than any other effort like this I’ve ever been a part of," he explained. "Usually, local health agencies are heavily involved in these kinds of decisions and this time we haven’t been involved at all.”

Because the state has sidelined local agencies like his, Clardy says his department is trying to find a new niche: reaching underserved communities. Despite making up nearly 13 percent of the state population, Black Missourians account for just 5 percent of the 390 thousand vaccinations for which the state has demographic data.

Clardy says he hopes his department can help address that disparity by leveraging community connections and taking the vaccine to people, rather than relying on them having their own mobility or internet access.

That will all depend on how many doses of vaccine the county health department gets from the state, which for the coming month at least, will remain uncertain.