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Slow COVID-19 vaccine rollout for non-hospital health care workers across St. Louis

In the St. Louis area, medical offices that see some of the area's most vulnerable patients don't know when they'll have access to the COVID-19 vaccine

ST. LOUIS — The COVID-19 pandemic put many routine doctor and dental appointments on hold in 2020. Vaccine news was a hopeful development on the way to life as normal for patients, doctors, nurses, and dentists.

Missouri's vaccine priority list puts all doctors and patient-facing health care workers at the top, to keep them working safely and protect their patients from exposure.

However, the reality of the vaccine rollout has left many of the area's medical offices without access.

"I was actually surprised to find out that my doctor doesn't qualify to get the COVID-19 vaccine," Jon Shigemura told the 5 On Your Side I-Team.

Shigemura's doctor specialized in patients with compromised immune systems. Those are the people who benefit the most from others being immunized against COVID-19, because the vaccine is not yet recommended for them. Yet Missouri's vaccine rollout plan left out the people who work at his doctor's office.

"I learned that because he sees patients outside of a hospital facility, that he's not considered a vaccine candidate," said Shigemura. "I was actually a little hesitant to do my follow-up visit, just knowing that."

The I-Team has received emails from nurses, dental workers, and other patient-facing health care workers who were also concerned that official plans to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine seemed to limit access only to people who worked within hospital systems.

One dental worker wrote, "We are in saliva and aerosols all day everyday and would like some help also," adding, "I feel we are a lost group."

Dr. Alex Garza, incident commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, acknowledged in a briefing Wednesday that he has also been contacted by health care workers who don't see where they fit in current vaccine distribution plans.

"Just because they don't work in a hospital or in an acute care facility doesn't mean they're not taking care of COVID patients or that they're not exposed to COVID," said Garza. "We recognize now that that's another challenge that was not in the initial planning with the state."

When asked about how the state intends to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine to health care workers who are not in hospitals, a representative of the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services wrote, "We are working with regional implementation teams and other partners to establish the primary vaccination modes based on best practices for patient-facing health care workers that are not affiliated with major health systems or hospitals."

They added, "These teams aren’t fully developed yet—we are not to the point of launching them yet as we’re not close to the next phase."

Individual counties have come up with their own plans, as Dr. Garza stated the task force hopes to have a plan by next week to vaccinate the workers left out so far.

A representative of the St. Louis County Department of Public Health told the I-Team that the county is preparing to schedule vaccines for health care workers who haven't been reached yet. They said to expect more details on Friday.

In Jefferson County, where the health department has not yet received any vaccine doses, hospitals and nursing homes are still top priority, officials said in a briefing on Wednesday.

"Once those needs are met, then additional vaccine will be dispersed to other providers in our area," said Kelley Vollmar, director of the Jefferson County Department of Health.

St. Charles County is also still waiting for more vaccine doses. The county is allowing medical and dental workers to sign up for vaccinations online, adding that "We have not been advised by the state regarding the timing or quantity of vaccine delivery."

In a statement, a representative of the St. Louis City Department of Health wrote: "The City of St. Louis Department of Health is working to gather information from organizations providing healthcare services on their Phase 1A (patient-facing) frontline workers. Examples of these organizations include doctor’s offices, dental offices, home health care, physical therapy, and in-person mental health services.

"The state of Missouri has yet to allocate vaccine supplies to the City Department of Health, meaning we did not have vaccine available for healthcare workers.

"As we prepare to secure supplies, we will release additional information on how organizations can provide their personnel list for vaccine rollout."

Shigemura said these delays put healthcare workers and their patients at risk.

"I think that our doctors are our most precious resource. They're keeping people out of the hospital, and they're preventing that spread. So we, we need to do more," he said.

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