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Jackson County pushes for vaccine answers

By Jeff Fox jeff.fox@examiner.net

Jackson County officials continue to press the state of Missouri to let teachers get COVID-19 vaccinations and press for a better job of making sure vaccines are getting to communities of color. They said those communities are being overlooked and the state isn’t sharing the data that would give a fuller picture of the problem.

“There are at least 28 other states in the United States right now where teachers can receive vaccinations, including the state of Kansas,” Caleb Clifford, chief of staff to County Executive Frank White Jr., told county legislators last Thursday. “Unfortunately, teachers in the state of Missouri still cannot receive vaccinations.”

The state has a tiered system to sort out who’s eligible for vaccines. After nursing homes and first responders were covered, the current tier includes those 65 and older and those with underlying health risks. Teachers are in the next group.

White told legislators he has spoken with Gov. Mike Parson twice in recent weeks, including last Thursday, on the teacher issue and on equity for communities of color.

“That was really the premise of my first call to him ... to talk about the inequities of the vaccine and how it wasn’t getting to the people that are first infected, first hospitalized and first to die in this pandemic – and that is black and brown people,” White said. “And on a call this morning he was pretty emphatic that St. Louis County, Jackson County, Kansas City were getting the same number of vaccines as rural Missouri, but I highly doubt it, very seriously.”

“So we just continue to re-emphasize to him that this is very important to our community. ...  I just feel like we just have to really keep the pressure on in terms of asking because if we don’t I think we’ll get missed in this process.”

More than 150,000 people have signed up with the county to get a notice when they are eligible to get a vaccine. The initial plan was that the county Health Department would deliver a large number of those shots, but the state in recent weeks shifted gears. It’s now favoring distribution through hospitals and the state’s own mass-vaccination events. 

“And we have had many weeks where we have not had any vaccination” delivered to the county Health Department, Clifford said.

The problem with the state’s approach, as Clifford outlined it, is that it’s allocating vaccines by Missouri State Highway Patrol district. There are nine of those, and the one Kansas City falls in covers 13 counties – stretching from Platte City to Marshall to Clinton – with just 2,500 doses a week to divide among those local health departments.

That’s how Jackson County ends up with an expected 900 doses last week and another 900 this week – “an abysmal amount in comparison to what is needed in our community,” Clifford said.

Separately, the federal government is providing vaccines directly to Walmart, CVS and Walgreens. White said that gives no assurance that shots will get to those most in need and neither does using for-profit hospitals. He said local health departments should do that work.

“I think we’re the best avenue to make sure that the right people who should get these vaccines, get the vaccines.” White said.

“Obviously it’s a lot of politics involved,” White added, “so we’re just going to continue to work hard for our community and make sure that Jackson County and Kansas City get the vaccines that they deserve – at least an equal share of the vaccines as they come out from the federal government.”

Another part of the problem, Clifford said, is that the state is not sharing demographic data – gender, race, geography – and he said those data would show “what we all know is happening.”

He also pointed out that the state has not yet held a mass-vaccination event in Jackson County. (The only one so far scheduled for the Kansas City area, at Cerner headquarters in North Kansas City, was delayed last week because of the extreme cold.)

Truman Medical Centers, on the other hand, has done what Clifford called “a wonderful job” of holding vaccination events in places such as the east side of Kansas City in an effort to reach communities of color and others at high risk.

“The desire is there,” Clifford stressed. “It is a supply issue, and then it’s also an equity issue on distribution. The county executive has asked that vaccinations be distributed to Jackson County at the very least on a population-proportionate share.”

“So if they’re not going to set up a vaccination site, that’s fine,” he said. “Give us the shots. We have the staff, we have the capacity, we have the ability, and we have the people who need and want that shot now. Give us those shots.”

“Instead of providing over half of those shots to hospitals, provide those shots to our Health Department,” he continued. “Increase the amount to the federally qualified health centers such as Swope, such as KC Cares … and allow us to provide these shots and put them in the arms of those who truly deserve them.”

Clifford said officials need to push to “increase the equity that we know is not occurring right now.”

White also said he’s confident the Jackson County and Kansas City health departments can deliver if they have vaccines.

He pointed out that Parson has never ordered a statewide mask mandate and left last spring’s stay-at-home orders to local authorities.

“He left it up to us,” White said, “so my thinking is if he’s not going to get involved with those things … then why can’t we just get the vaccine and the county and city be responsible for allocating those vaccines to our residents?”