St. Louis County sounds alarm at dwindling COVID vaccine supply, appointments may pause

The county health department’s last vaccine shipment from the state was Jan. 19

By: - February 8, 2021 7:34 pm

Will Bogan III, business manager for DPH Primary Care Integration, receives his Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination from RN Deidre Perry on Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Christopher Ave/St. Louis County Department of Public Health)

Last week, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health was listed along with St. Louis’ four major hospital systems as a “high throughput” provider that would be receiving a portion of 15,600 doses allocated to the region each week to administer to residents.

But according to an email sent by St. Louis County Executive Sam Page’s chief adviser, the county has yet to receive any doses from either the state or the hospital systems — with current doses on hand expected to run out Tuesday.

The situation improved Monday night, though the county still worries a shortage of doses could force it to pause its vaccine program.

Winston Calvert — Page’s chief strategy officer and chief adviser — reached out to Randall Williams, the director of Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services, and Alex Garza, the incident commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, to request clarity in an email sent around noon on Monday. 

Calvert wrote that DHSS told the county on Friday that it would receive 9,000 previously promised doses through the allocations being made toward the St. Louis healthcare systems. However, Calvert says the county was informed by Garza that the hospital systems disagreed with the state and believed DHSS should instead provide vaccine to the county directly.

“That disagreement has left St. Louis County caught in the middle, as each side tells us to get vaccine doses from the other side,” read Calvert’s email, a copy of which was obtained by The Independent.

In a news release Monday night, the county said it reached an agreement with local hospitals to receive 1,950 doses later this week. The county had been informed Monday morning that it wouldn’t receive a shipment this week from the state. 

Doug Moore, a spokesman for Page, said Williams had not yet responded to Calvert’s email as of 5:40 p.m. DHSS and the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Last week, the state announced details on its “high throughput” distribution model. Hospital systems in the nine Highway Patrol regions would be shipped about 53 percent of the state’s weekly vaccine allocation — with the goal of administering doses to residents in the community.

The four major hospital systems in the St. Louis region — BJC HealthCare, Mercy St. Louis, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Hospital — were chosen to receive 15,600 doses weekly, along with the St. Louis County Health Department.

The St. Louis region was the only one to explicitly list a local public health department as a provider through the “high throughput” model.

During a hearing before state lawmakers last week, Williams said he expects hospital systems — as contingent on getting vaccine — to work with local health departments in their area to reach residents most at-risk.

Christopher Ave, a spokesman for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health, said the department’s last vaccine shipment from the state was nearly three weeks ago on Jan. 19. 

A hospital partner redistributed 3,900 doses to the county last week, Ave said, though he declined to confirm which hospital. 

In his email to Williams and Garza, Calvert wrote that St. Louis County is expected to run out of doses by Tuesday and needs “to know what tomorrow holds.” 

“This makes it incredibly difficult to plan a distribution network and staffing, and makes it impossible to regularly communicate with our constituents when more appointments will be available,” Calvert wrote.

“More importantly, it puts at further risk the population (Department of Public Health) serves, including people who are uninsured or underinsured, people who don’t have a primary care physician, and others who are uniquely at-risk and vulnerable to COVID-19,” Calvert went on to write. “Many of the people who need the vaccine the most simply will not have access to the vaccine if only patients of private health systems can get it.”

The St. Louis County Department of Public Health has already administered about 10,000 initial doses and roughly 700 booster doses, Ave said, with more appointments scheduled for Tuesday.

“We have the capability of administering more than 5,000 doses a week,” Ave said. “And we’d like to use that capability. But we don’t have enough vaccine to do that.”

With a pre-registration list of about 281,000 people, Ave said the county will only open appointments if doses are available to administer, as it does not intend to cancel appointments.

“But the fact is that we still would like clarity about how many doses we’re going to get, and where we’re going to get them from, and who is going to give them to us,” Ave said.

The highway patrol region that encompasses St. Louis County and city is home to about 37 percent of the state’s population and has an estimated 700,665 residents currently eligible under Tier 2 of Phase 1B, Garza said during a briefing Friday.

“The reason why I tell you all this, is I think we all realize that we need really dramatically more vaccine if we want to be able to get through this population faster,” Garza said during Monday’s briefing.

The state’s distribution models have garnered frustration from all sides, with lawmakers from both rural and urban areas sharing that their residents are feeling left behind. Gov. Mike Parson said in a statement Monday that claims that urban areas aren’t being supported are “simply not true.”

Meanwhile, a Jan. 18 analysis presented Thursday by Deloitte Consulting found that vaccine deserts had expanded in the St. Louis and Kansas City metros, despite shrinking in other areas of the state.

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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.