Rumors swirled vaccine went to waste in rural Missouri. Officials say that’s false

All unused doses were sent to other vaccine providers in the area, state officials said

Cars line up at a mass vaccination event at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Leopold on Feb. 24, 2021. (Photo via Missouri State Emergency Management Agency)

The Bollinger County Health Center had a predicament on its hands.

In conjunction with the state, it had organized a mass vaccination event on Wednesday in Leopold — population 65. Nearly 2,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine had been supplied for the drive-through clinic.

Residents were instructed to pre-register ahead of time. But by late afternoon, KFVS-TV was reporting that less than a third of the doses had been administered at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

So, the health center told KFVS, the event would be opened so residents without an appointment could attend.

What happened next has been a point of contention.

On social media, the news spread fast that anyone, regardless of whether they were eligible or not, could come receive a shot in order to prevent wasting any doses. It spurred some St. Louis area residents to drop what they were doing to make the two-hour drive south before the event was scheduled to end at 5 p.m. A similar situation occurred at a mass vaccination event in McDonald County, according to KSDK-TV.

When it was over, rumors swirled that hundreds of doses went to waste because not enough people could attend since the event was held so far outside of population centers.

State officials, however, insist that’s not the case.

Of the 1,950 doses of Pfizer vaccine allocated for the mass vaccination event, 648 were administered. All unused doses were sent to other vaccine providers in the area.

“No vaccines went to waste. Remaining doses were redistributed for use within Region E, which is the standard procedure,” said Mike O’Connell, a spokesman for the Department of Public Safety. “They were properly cold stored so there are multiple days before they have to be used.”

O’Connell said DPS and officials from the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency spoke with the lead for the area’s Regional Implementation Team, who said that late in the day Wednesday the event was opened up to people without an appointment — but who still fell within the state’s tiers currently eligible for a vaccine, which includes people 65 and over and those with certain underlying health conditions.

However, KFVS-TV reported that Juanita Welker, the administrator of the Bollinger County Health Center, said the event had been opened to “anyone” around 3 p.m. in an effort not to waste shots. Welker could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

Woodland High School in Marble Hill — the county seat with over 1,400 residents — had been the original location that local officials had hoped to hold the mass vaccination event at, O’Connell said.

But to do so would have required canceling school for the day. Another site was ruled out due to potential traffic issues. The Knights of Columbus Hall in Leopold was ultimately chosen because it could handle the traffic flow and meet accessibility standards, O’Connell said.

“Progress is being made within the mass vaccination team to ensure these types of situations don’t occur moving forward,” O’Connell said. “The state team is continuing to work with the local teams to ensure the amount of vaccine allocated more closely matches the need within the area for scheduled mass events.”

While the event’s handling led to outrage and confusion on social media as residents in metro areas struggle to find available vaccine appointments, the Bollinger County Health Department said it was “a huge success.”

When asked about the event during a press conference Thursday, Gov. Mike Parson said some health departments are better equipped than others to handle those situations and that the department “probably shouldn’t have put that out there the way they did.”

“We try our best to make sure those things are not happening,” Parson said.

On a statewide call Thursday with the state’s Regional Implementation Teams, O’Connell said it was re-emphasized that vaccines should only be administered to be people within the eligible tiers, and that no doses go to waste and are instead redistributed within the region.

It’s unclear whether residents who are currently ineligible for a vaccine under the state’s current tiers traveled to the Bollinger County event and received a dose. Regardless, Missouri’s registration system is a self-attestation process. State officials have described it as an honor system, and have asked residents to be truthful when vouching for their eligibility.

In guidance released earlier this month, the Department of Health and Senior Services said that providers can require additional forms of identification to verify people’s residence and ensure that doses are going toward Missouri residents first and foremost.

And if a dose is in danger of going to waste, providers may need to vaccinate ineligible residents.

“In this situation, vaccinators must first make a good faith effort to vaccinate an eligible person before vaccinating an ineligible person,” the DHSS guidance reads.

Parson pushed back on complaints that the state was favoring rural areas over Missouri’s more heavily-populated metros in the vaccine distribution.

“When you pick Leopold, Missouri, a little town in rural Missouri, in a county that doesn’t have a Walgreens, doesn’t have a CVS, doesn’t have a Walmart, and when you look at that county,” Parson said, “that little town — yes doesn’t have much of a population. The only reason it was picked was simply because it had the availability to do a mass vaccine because of space.”

“Everyone from around that region could come in to be vaccinated,” Parson said.

In Bollinger County, with a population of a little over 12,000, about 13.3 percent of residents have received at least their first dose as of Thursday, according to the state’s dashboard.

As the state’s vaccine supply increases, Parson said he anticipates multiple mass vaccination events supported by members of the Missouri National Guard will be scheduled in the state’s largest cities.

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