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Missourians Are Still Heading To The Country To Find A Vaccine

Missouri National Guard members, along with the Crawford County Health Department and local hospital employees gave out more than 2,200 doses of COVID vaccines in this drive-thru event in Cuba, MO. It's estimated about 40% of them came from the St. Louis area, about 100 miles away.
Jonathan Ahl
St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri National Guard members, along with the Crawford County Health Department and local hospital employees, gave out more than 2,200 doses of COVID vaccines in this recent drive-thru event in Cuba. It's estimated about 40% of them came from the St. Louis area, about 100 miles away.

City dwellers who head outstate to go hiking or antiquing or to find that perfect fruit or vegetable stand are instead making those trips in search of the COVID-19 vaccine.

The website vaccinespotter.org features a map of each state with green dots indicating available appointments and red dots showing no appointments. On the map of Missouri, there are lots of red dots clustered around St. Louis and Kansas City. But in rural areas, the dots are green.

Ever since the COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Missouri, there have sometimes been more doses than demand in rural areas, while urban centers found themselves far short.

Meghan Baggett, a middle school teacher in the Clayton School District, signed up on multiple waiting lists around the St. Louis area before her school district announced it was returning to in-person learning, five days a week.

“As soon as I heard that, I was like, OK, I have to get vaccinated, like now,” Baggett said.

She checked again with nearby hospitals, clinics, and health departments but came up dry. Then a colleague suggested they make the hour-and-a-half drive to Festus, where they had a lead on open appointments.

“She knew somebody in the medical health care profession who was helping people sign up, and I gave her my information, and she signed me up for it,” Baggett said. “I had to take off work early, but we got it, and I’m glad we did.”

Baggett will make that drive again in two weeks for her second dose, but a 90-minute drive pales in comparison to people driving four hours or more from St. Louis to all corners of the state.

Data doesn’t yet show why the rural spots don’t fill up with locals, but it’s likely a combination of a robust supply, lower demand, and less internet access in rural areas, which is often essential for getting an appointment.

Tim McBride, a Washington University health policy analyst, said it won’t get better, because the state is adding people to the eligibility list faster than the supply is increasing.

“We’re probably going to go through two or three weeks of a real mismatch between supply and demand again, unfortunately,” McBride said.

Demand is lower in rural areas, where there is greater vaccine hesitancy, but Liz Hamel, a health researcher with the Kaiser Family Foundation, cautioned that’s not because rural people don’t want the vaccine at all.

“People living in rural areas have a lot of the same concerns about the vaccines as people all around the country do,” Hamel said. “I worry that sometimes it gets painted with this broad brush that nobody living there wants the vaccine.”

Kaiser’s latest survey shows 60% of rural residents want the vaccine, compared to 70% of urban residents.

Those numbers ring true with Honor Evans, the administrator and head nurse with the Crawford County Health Department, about 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.

The county held the second phase of a mass, drive-thru vaccine clinic this week, giving second shots of the Pfizer vaccine to more than 2,200 people in two days.

Evans doesn’t have exact numbers but estimates about 40% of the people who came to the Knights of Columbus Hall parking lot in Cuba were from the St. Louis area.

And she’s fine with that

“We aren’t telling them they can’t come and get a vaccine because of where they live,” Evans said. “And there are a lot of people who, you know, spend time down here in the summer, and when they come back to float our rivers and stay in our lodges we will be happy they are vaccinated.”

Evans said that it’s still primarily locals who come to the health department offices on days when they administer about 100 shots, and that it’s the big events that attract outsiders.

“The most important thing is to get the vaccine into arms as quickly as possible,” Evans said.

Gov. Mike Parson responded to criticism that too much vaccine went to rural areas and not enough to cities by announcing adjustments in distribution would be made to correct any discrepancies.

But it’s still easier to find an appointment in rural areas than urban centers.

Marsha Parsons drove to Cuba from her home an hour away in Marthasville. While sitting in her car during the 20-minute waiting period after getting her second Pfizer dose, she said her advice is that any drive is worth it.

“I would say get it where you can first get it. The first available you can find, go for it,” Parsons said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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