Kansas City mayor asks federal government to step in on Mo. vaccine distribution

Gov. Mike Parson has faced criticism that the state's distribution strategy is inequitable and favors less-populated rural areas over its largest cities


Jonathan Shorman, Allison Kite, Jeanne Kuang, and Michael Wilner
The Kansas City Star
        
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas is asking the federal government to establish COVID-19 mass vaccination sites in the city amid widespread anger that Missouri's urban areas aren't receiving more doses.

Lucas wants the Federal Emergency Management Agency to work with the city health department to hold mass vaccination events, according to a letter Lucas sent to FEMA Administrator Robert Fenton on Tuesday.

"The state's unavailability of the vaccine was, and continues to be, compounded by an environment of resident confusion riddled with misinformation, competing eligibility lists, and broad-based distribution plans based primarily on our competing hospital systems in metropolitan areas of Missouri without compulsory collaboration," Lucas wrote. 

Governor Mike Parson, center, takes questions from the media with, from left, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, Parson, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure and Columbia Mayor Brian Treece at the Governor's Office in the Capitol building.
Governor Mike Parson, center, takes questions from the media with, from left, Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas, St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, Parson, Springfield Mayor Ken McClure and Columbia Mayor Brian Treece at the Governor's Office in the Capitol building. (Don Shrubshell/Tribune)

Since Missouri's vaccine rollout began in December, Gov. Mike Parson has faced criticism that the state's distribution strategy is inequitable and favors less-populated rural areas over its largest cities. Parson has come under attack for not locating more National Guard-administered mass vaccination sites closer to Kansas City and St. Louis. Stories have surfaced of wasted doses in rural areas and city residents driving hours for appointments.

Lucas's letter amounts to a call for federal intervention — at least in Kansas City — in vaccine distribution and comes a day after he and other big city mayors spoke with Parson. This week, Parson also announced that with new shipments arriving from Johnson & Johnson, the state will hold more National Guard mass vaccination events in the Kansas City and St. Louis regions.

In an interview, Lucas said he was not trying to go around Parson. Rather, he's listening to the calls of Kansas Citians asking him to get more vaccines.

"To suggest that our vaccination process in Missouri has worked in a fair and equitable way is to have blinders on," Lucas said. "I understand that this is new for the governor as it's new for me as it's new for every health director in the state of Missouri."

Lucas said Missouri officials "have got to get better" as they move toward vaccinating larger groups of residents. He also noted Kansas has already begun vaccinating teachers where Missouri will start in about two weeks.

Spokespersons for Parson's office and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services could not immediately be reached for comment.

Over the past three weeks, Parson has insisted the state's vaccine distribution efforts did not favor rural populations.

State health officials have repeatedly defended a "balanced" approach that hands vaccine doses to large hospitals and health systems in urban areas while holding National Guard mass vaccination events in rural parts of the state's nine Highway Patrol regions. A smaller amount goes to local health departments and smaller clinics.

Doses are allocated to each of the nine regions in accordance with its share of Missouri's population.

Lucas said the health systems in Kansas City, particularly Jackson County, are not working together as effectively as hospitals in the Northland — and that distribution of the vaccine should not favor residents who have an established relationship with a hospital.

"These vaccines are for every Missourian," Lucas said. "They're not for patients of X or Y hospital. They're not for people who are good at calling Walgreen's early, and that's what needs to be made clear to everybody."

Lucas said the state's distribution to Kansas City area hospitals should not count as part of its distributions to Kansas City residents, and that some hospitals have used that allotment of doses to vaccinate patients from Johnson County, Kansas, or Missouri counties outside the area.

In his letter to FEMA, Lucas said nearly 12% of white residents of Missouri have been vaccinated compared to 4.5% of Black Missourians and 1.9% of Latino residents.

"It's stark. It is incredibly troubling, and it tells you something about how we're doing with rollout, particularly in, at least, this major city," Lucas said.

A state-commissioned analysis of Missouri's vaccine distribution by Deloitte, a consulting firm, shows the largest urban areas have the biggest "vaccination gap." The analysis was posted online Tuesday by The Missouri Independent, which obtained it through a records request.

Parson on Monday announced that 15% of the state's doses for the first two weeks of March will go toward "vaccine desert mitigation."

The White House responded Tuesday to reports of inequitable access to vaccines in Kansas and Missouri.

"If there were one of the vaccines that were distributed primarily into certain demographic communities or neighborhoods, that would be a concern to us. We track that closely," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said. "It is something that our COVID team looks at, and as there are issues, they raise them directly with state leaders."

On Monday, Jeff Zients, coordinator of the White House coronavirus response team, said that the administration "will take action" if it sees vaccines being distributed unevenly to certain communities over others.

"First actions would include obviously the communication of our standards and our insistence that people adhere to the standards, and then we would begin by providing technical assistance to the state or other providers," he said.

An analysis of city health data by The Star showed that the 10 city Zip codes that had the highest proportion of residents vaccinated were all overwhelmingly white.

In the past two weeks, at least two rural Missouri health departments had hundreds more doses on hand than people showing up for a shot, leading them to put out the call for anyone interested to come to their mass vaccination events.

Addressing one of those events, held last week in the 69-person southeast Missouri town of Leopold, Parson during his weekly press conference acknowledged the state tries "to make sure those things are not happening." But he said the events are open to any eligible resident in surrounding counties, including urban ones.

When a reporter pressed him on whether it would be more efficient to hold the events in more populated areas, Parson again said the doses are proportionally allocated among the nine regions.

"We're just trying to make sure those numbers are the same in every region," he said.

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