Nadine Hutson pre-registered for the COVID-19 vaccine at a dozen places around Missouri before she scored one of the prized shots.
The advice from her friends was: The more rural, the easier it is to get a dose. Fewer people live in those counties, Hutson reasons.
After scouring the internet for vaccine appointments for nearly 10 hours, she spotted a clip in a Perryville newspaper announcing a vaccination event Jan. 29. “First come, first serve,” it read. Hutson, 67, who lives in south St. Louis County, left at 2:30 a.m. to drive south to Perry County and stand in line.
“It was a process, but I think it paid off,” Hutson said.
Vaccine doses have been so scarce near St. Louis that many area residents desperate for a shot have started traveling to rural parts of the state to find one. These trips can take an entire day and often must be planned with only a few days’ notice, making them nearly impossible for many eligible people with strict job schedules or who rely on public transportation to get around.
The undersupply has prompted local health officials to question the Missouri governor’s office over the state’s distribution of the vaccine. Doctors say the state has shorted the St. Louis region on doses despite the region having the largest share of Missouri’s hospital systems, coronavirus deaths and population.
Gov. Mike Parson has defended the state’s allocations as fair and based on population, but most counties in the St. Louis metro area are below the statewide average for vaccinating residents. As of Monday, 10.3% of Missourians have received their first dose of the vaccine, while 7.1% of St. Louis County residents, 8.1% of St. Charles County residents and 9.1% of St. Louis residents have had their first shots.
The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services announced plans Thursday to increase the region’s weekly vaccine shipment to 33,200, beginning this week. A majority of those doses are headed to hospital systems; others will be administered by local clinics and counties and at mass vaccination events operated by the Missouri National Guard and local health departments.
That larger weekly allotment is still dwarfed by the 700,000 people in the St. Louis metro who Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, estimates are eligible for the vaccine.
“If we had the appropriate amount of allocation within [the St. Louis region], then perhaps people wouldn’t have to travel to go and find vaccine in some of these more rural areas,” Garza said last week.
For every one person Overland resident Mary Dunger knows who has found a shot in St. Louis, she says she knows five who have traveled outside the region for one.
Dunger, 75, was vaccinated at a Missouri National Guard event in Cape Girardeau on Jan. 29. She said she knows traveling to obtain a vaccine dose can be a costly, unrealistic endeavor for many people.
“I can see that there’s a privilege there that I don’t feel good about, but I didn’t create the situation,” Dunger said. “Anybody I know that’s done it has had internet access and been able to easily, once they become aware of the possibility, they’re able to get online and pursue it.”
Reporter Kayla Drake Discusses Vaccination Road Trips on St. Louis on the Air
St. Louis Public Radio interviewed six residents from the St. Louis area who traveled to Cape Girardeau, Caruthersville, Columbia, Hannibal, Rolla or Perryville to receive shots. All are white; most are retired. Dozens more responded to an email newsletter with their experiences of driving to find a coveted dose. Many heard about vaccination sites through broad social networks. Word of vaccination events traveled through a grapevine of Facebook posts and emails forwarded along by friends and acquaintances.
That’s how it worked for Jim Warren. He discovered from a Facebook post in January that Cape Girardeau’s health department had appointments available.
Immediately, his wife scheduled a time slot for him and his 88-year-old father-in-law to make the two-hour drive south. Warren took photos of the moment nurses stuck their arms and posted them to Facebook. He said he could finally breathe a sigh of relief.
The ethics of traveling for a shot
If you can travel outside your region to get the vaccine, should you?
Among the things to consider is whether you might be crowding out people in rural areas, said bioethicist Nancy Berlinger, a researcher at the Hastings Center, a New York-based think tank.
Traveling long distances for a dose is not an option for most people with the highest health risks.
“It’s not a strategy that helps people most at risk for COVID,” Berlinger said.
Rural areas in Missouri have large populations of older people with chronic illnesses, and many counties lack adequate health care systems. People traveling to rural areas could be taking appointments from locals, whom the shots are intended for, Berlinger said.
Jane Wernsman, Cape Girardeau’s Health Department director, she doesn’t mind that people are coming to her town for the vaccine. But she would rather they receive a vaccination closer to home “so that we’re able to vaccinate a few more individuals from within the region with vaccine and give them the opportunity to not have to travel.”
Follow Kayla on Twitter: @_kayladrake