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St. Louis Doctors Say Irregular Coronavirus Vaccine Shipments Hinder Vaccination Plans

Doctors say they don't know how many doses of the coronavirus vaccine they will receive from the federal government until days before they arrive.
Sarah Fentem
St. Louis Public Radio
Doctors say they don't know how many doses of the coronavirus vaccine they will receive from the federal government until days before they arrive.

The federal government’s irregular coronavirus vaccine shipments make it difficult for health systems in the St. Louis region to distribute doses, doctors say.

Federal officials each week tell states how many vaccine doses they will receive. After that, state officials direct the shipments to hospitals, health departments and other vaccination sites.

But that number can vary by thousands of doses each week, and vaccinators get little notice of how many doses to expect. That makes it difficult to make appointments for the millions of people now eligible to receive the vaccine in Missouri.

“It is definitely true that the state is not getting as much vaccine as it wishes it were and we are not getting as much vaccine as we would like to be able to move ahead with rapidly vaccinating patients,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock, an infectious disease specialist at BJC HealthCare. “With a week-to-week change in how much vaccine might be coming to a state and therefore to a vaccinator, it is very hard to plan for large-sale vaccinations.”

Federal officials limit the supply to make sure they don’t over promise more than drug manufacturers can produce.

Missouri expects to receive close to 80,000 doses this week, and close to 80,000 doses next week, said Dr. Randall Williams, Missouri's health director.

More than 2 million people in Missouri, including people 65 and older and people with chronic health conditions, are now eligible to receive the vaccine. Hundreds of thousands of people in the St. Louis region are registering with hospitals and health departments to receive a shot, but it’s still unclear when they will be able to make an appointment.

On the first day BJC’s vaccination website went live, more than 10,000 people signed up to receive notifications of when they would be able to make an appointment, Babcock said.

The sheer number of people seeking shots in addition to the unclear shipment schedules makes planning vaccinations difficult.

Hospitals don’t know how many doses they will receive until a day or two in advance, said Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force.

He compared it to building a bicycle without parts.

“If you had a bunch of bicycle frames but you weren't sure how many tires you were going to get to complete the bicycle, it makes it really hard to schedule your workforce and how your production line is set up,” he said. “We can’t plan weeks out.”

The lack of clarity could discourage people from signing up to get the vaccine, said Jennifer Kates, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Your state might say, ‘Sorry, we have no appointments available, we don't know when we're going to have a vaccine.’ And that could be quite discouraging,” she said. “And you want to make sure that people keep checking and come back.”

Making irregular vaccination appointments available on short notice could favor people with access to computers and smartphones and who are more adept at managing the internet.

“Those who are better able to navigate the system will be better able to get their vaccine and those who are less able, may fall behind and may need extra assistance,” Kates said.

Follow Sarah on Twitter: Petit_Smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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