JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – State health officials testified in front of some Missouri lawmakers Monday to update them on where the state stands with vaccinations.
Last time Governor Mike Parson’s deputy chief of staff and the state health director testified in front of lawmakers, the hearing lasted three hours. Monday’s meeting in the Health and Mental Health Policy Committee lasted less than an hour. While some representatives thanked them for how the vaccine plan is going, others said more needs to be done.
“You all still have not reached out to representatives who represent these socially-disadvantaged communities, which are communities of color,” Rep. Kimberly-Ann Collins (D-St. Louis) said. “You all haven’t even done a mass vaccination event north of Natural Bridge in St. Louis.”
Collins said she could not say thank you to state officials because her district, north of downtown St. Louis, is like a vaccine desert.
“I have a ton of unhoused residents at our pop-up shelters in the City of St. Louis that are over the age of 65 that have chronic illnesses that would like the vaccine,” Collins said. “How do we coordinate that we can get you all to those pop-up shelters so that they can get vaccinated, because those are our most vulnerable people in the state of Missouri.”
Other House members on the committee were thanking state officials for the rollout of Missouri’s vaccination plan.
“Kudos to you guys for taking on this nightmare and really doing a great job with it,” Rep. Michael O’Donnell (R-St. Louis) said.
Parson’s Deputy Chief of Staff Robert Knodell and Director of the Department of Health and Senior Services Dr. Randall Williams testified to the committee, saying although the state has received less vaccine per capita than most of the surrounding states, Missouri is doing well.
“Roughly 2.3 million shots administered across the state,” Knodell said. “We’re seeing a progress of vaccination at a rate of approximately 250,000 per week”
The state announced Monday it will work with FEMA to administer 3,000 doses a day for eight weeks in the St. Louis area starting April 7. The daily program will take place on the concourse level of the Dome at America’s Center. Free parking will be provided.
“We’re trying to engage the federal government to work with us to open and operate other sites across the state, not just in the City of St. Louis,” Knodell said. “It will be an additional federal allocation, so it doesn’t take away from the other efforts that are ongoing.”
Knodell said the state faced backlash for waiting to vaccinate certain groups.
“We continue to say we were continuing to protect the most vulnerable Missourians,” Knodell said. “We’ve taken an incredible amount of pressure for not opening certain groups for vaccinations as quickly as other states have. We did focus on Missourians over 65 and those under 65 with comorbidities as long as we did, even though that was a controversial decision.”
One Republican member said she feels like the state is requiring Missourians to get the vaccine.
“That gets lost in most of the messaging and that comes across as ‘everyone get vaccinated, or else,'” Rep. Lisa Thomas (R-Lake Ozark) said.
Williams responded: “Patients have the right to make their own decisions.”
Knodell said the state is about to start a four-month marketing campaign using medical professionals to talk with Missourians about the importance of getting the vaccine.
“This vaccine is under Emergency Use Authorization from the federal government, so at this time, the issue of mandates, especially at the government level, is not something that is under consideration,” Knodell said. “We are about to enter a phase where demand is going to decrease, maybe in every area of the state as quickly as some others.”
Rep. Brian Seitz (R-Branson) asked Knodell and Williams why people who have been vaccinated still have to wear masks and social distance.
“We do have variants, the UK variant, which now supposedly makes up for 30 percent of cases in the United States, and the known fact that you can acquire that after having COVID,” Williams said. “There may be a small window that even if you’ve been vaccinated, that somebody coughs in your face, the virus gets in your nose, and your immune system kicks in, so there might be a small window there.”
Knodell also told the committee the state has created its own retail pharmacy program. The federal retail pharmacy program uses facilities like Walmart, Sam’s Club, Hy-Vee, and Health Mart to administer the vaccine. Under the state’s program, Knodell said it’s more local pharmacies. Each week, he said the state sends between 100 to 400 first doses of the vaccine.