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Missouri Emergency Workers Now Eligible For COVID-19 Vaccine, Those 65 And Older Soon

Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Phelps Health Medical Center in Rolla on December 29, 2020.
Phelps Health
Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines arrived at Phelps Health Medical Center in Rolla on December 29, 2020.

Gov. Mike Parson announced Thursday that law enforcement personnel, firefighters, emergency medical technicians and other emergency workers are eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine. Missourians 65 or older or those with chronic health conditions will be eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine starting next week.

The announcement marks the next phase of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, which will eventually include teachers, agricultural workers and other “essential employees,” and half of the state’s 6 million residents.

The federal government shipped the first doses of the coronavirus vaccines to the state last month. State officials made giving first doses to health care workers and long-term care facility residents and workers a priority.

Hospitals, private drugstores and health departments have vaccinated a fraction of that first group, which comprises about 500,000 people. But the federal government is expected to significantly increase the supply of vaccine doses coming to states starting next week, Parson said.

“We are looking forward to increased vaccine supply in the coming weeks as supply is the leading factor that dictates our movement through our plan,” Parson said. “The more supply we receive, the quicker we can reach our goal of making vaccines available to every Missourian who wants one.”

The state will make instructions on how to receive the vaccine available online Friday.

Here’s the latest information on Missouri’s vaccine distribution plan:

Patient-facing health care workers, including janitors, food service employees and front desk staff, are receiving the vaccine in Missouri. State officials have now determined police officers, emergency medical technicians and other first responders will also receive the vaccine.

Starting Monday, people over 65, those with health conditions, weakened immune systems or developmental disabilities and those who are pregnant can register to receive the vaccine.

The state will then begin vaccinating essential workers. This group comprises nearly 1 million people and includes teachers, child care workers, energy workers and food and agricultural workers.

Homeless people and inmates will receive the vaccine next, but state officials have not said when.

Everyone else will have to wait to receive the vaccine, likely until summer, Williams said.

The state instructs police, fire and other emergency personnel, health care workers and nursing home employees to contact their company or professional associations to receive the vaccine.

Health departments in St. Louis County and elsewhere have some doses for health care workers who meet eligibility requirements.

State officials say other eligible patients should contact their local pharmacy or doctor or visit the state’s vaccination website starting Friday to learn when and how they can receive the vaccine.

Local health departments, including the St. Louis County Department of Public Health and the St. Louis Department of Health, have set up registration systems so residents can sign up to receive notifications of when and how they will be able to receive a dose.

As of Thursday, only about one-third of Missouri's 500,000 health care workers, nursing home employees and residents have received their first dose of the vaccine. Dr. Randall Williams, director of the state’s department of Health and Senior Services, has said all should be vaccinated by the end of the month.

More than 160,000 individuals have received an initial dose, and more than 22,000 have now been fully vaccinated with the two-dose series.

The limited number of doses the federal government is shipping to Missouri is hindering vaccine distribution in the state, Williams said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal government has shipped more than 500,000 doses to the state.

The federal government announced changes to its distribution earlier this week. Federal officials will begin shipping all available vaccines soon instead of holding back shots for second doses, said Jennifer Kates, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“One of the reasons that [the rollout] slowed down a little bit was because the federal government was holding back doses,” Kates said. “So that's one factor in this, but that should start changing…there’s sort of an agreement that pushing out doses faster needs to happen."

Once the federal government stops holding back second doses, it will fall on states to make sure there will be enough for people to receive their second shot.

“On one hand, it's really clear that we have to vaccinate more people more quickly, and finding ways to speed that up is essential,” Kates said. But “you can't just throw doses out there, you have to manage who's getting them.”

Making sure there will be a second dose for everyone could be difficult, Kates said.

“Especially if there's not enough supply to meet all the demand, you run the risk of two things,” she said. “Creating unrealistic expectations, and people coming to try to get vaccinated and basically being turned away. And we're seeing that in many states.”

It’s possible the vaccine may still be effective, Kates said. But enrollees in the clinical trials that proved both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines’ effectiveness took two doses. Their 90-95% effectiveness is based on those studies, and it’s unknown how well either would work with a half-dose.

It’s likely the Food and Drug Administration will approve a single-dose vaccine from the drug developer Johnson & Johnson in the next few months, Kates said. Distribution of a single-dose vaccine will be less of a logistical challenge, she said.

Based on the coronavirus’ contagiousness, 70-80% of people in the United States will need to receive the vaccine in order to get herd immunity, or widespread suppression of the virus, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases, told Washington University students and faculty earlier this month.

However, communities may start seeing cases and hospitalizations decrease by spring,said Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease official.

State officials say they’ll be able to vaccinate anyone who wants a shot by the end of summer. Other health experts, including Kates, think that timeline is optimistic but are confident the vaccine will be widely available before the end of the year.

Even after mass vaccinations, the coronavirus will likely always be with us, said Dr. Jennifer Monroy, an allergist and immunologist at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.

But widespread immunity and vaccinations will make it less of a mortal threat and more like the common cold.

“As people are vaccinated, they're going to get less sick from it because they're able to make a good immune response from it,” Monroy said. “So those that are unvaccinated may still be susceptible to getting COVID-19. And the hopes are that many people get vaccinated, there will be less people having severe symptoms and less need of hospital beds.”

The clinical trials for Pfizer and Moderna showed the vaccines decreased illness in recipients, not contagiousness, Monroy said.

“So because you're vaccinated doesn't mean you may not carry COVID,” she said. “And we're going to get more information and more data on that in the future. Like I said, a lot of this stuff, we're just kind of learning as we're going along.”

In the meantime, it’s still important to stay away from socializing and wear masks to keep from spreading the virus, she said.

Correction: A previous version of this report misstated how many people are considered essential workers under the Missouri’s vaccine plan. There are nearly 1 million workers in that group.

Jaclyn Driscoll contributed to this report.

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Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio

Sarah Fentem reports on sickness and health as part of St. Louis Public Radio’s news team. She previously spent five years reporting for different NPR stations in Indiana, immersing herself deep, deep into an insurance policy beat from which she may never fully recover. A longitme NPR listener, she grew up hearing WQUB in Quincy, Illinois, which is now owned by STLPR. She lives in the Kingshighway Hills neighborhood, and in her spare time likes to watch old sitcoms, meticulously clean and organize her home and go on outdoor adventures with her fiancé Elliot. She has a cat, Lil Rock, and a dog, Ginger.