ST. LOUIS — Butch Hartmann, 78, of Richmond Heights, doesn’t have a computer. He calls any phone number he can to get “my lady” — his girlfriend of 39 years — a vaccine dose, he says. But she hasn’t gotten an appointment.
More than a month has passed since Missourians older than 65 or with certain high-risk medical conditions became eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine. But with doses hard to come by, St. Louis-area hospital systems are still focusing their vaccination efforts on those age 75 and older.
Hartmann’s girlfriend, Betty Sharp, is 74. She is a cancer survivor, overweight, and has high blood pressure and problems with her memory, he said.
Hartmann, a disabled veteran, got his second vaccine dose Friday through the Veterans Administration. Meanwhile, he has preregistered Sharp with every hospital, public health department and hotline he can.
“She oughta be up there near the top of the list somewhere, and I can’t get any help,” he said.
Hartmann is frail and needs a cane. He can’t drive. Sharp cares for him. If she gets COVID-19, he said, “we’d both be in big trouble.”
Countless St. Louis-area residents eligible for the vaccine share similar stories of desperation. An uneven and confusing rollout has sent droves of those tired of waiting to rural areas hours away where it is easier for them to find appointments.
State Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, recently requested data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services. It shows an unequal distribution of doses across counties as well as the state’s nine geographic vaccine distribution regions in the first eight weeks of the rollout (the state just completed week 10).
The data, through the week of Feb. 1, shows enough doses were shipped statewide to begin vaccinating 10.4% of the population. A dozen counties outside the St. Louis region, however, got enough to give doses to 20% or more. Cape Girardeau County topped the list with 54.2%.
St. Louis County — with the most people in the state — received enough vaccine for 8.6% of its population, the data showed. Before the week of Feb. 15, the St. Louis County Department of Public Health had gone three weeks without receiving any vaccine and was relying on doses shared from area hospitals.
In addition, a new retail pharmacy partnership, which Missouri officials say they have no control over, currently involves 81 Walmart locations that are mainly in outstate areas. Only two are in the St. Louis area.
Missouri’s plan includes having Regional Implementation Teams in charge of helping ensure efficient and equitable vaccine distribution in each region, but the latest count shows three of the nine regions — including the St. Louis region — still don’t have one. Others were slow to start.
State health officials have said no one seems to want the job, with local organizations blaming vague requirements and little money — no more than $128,000 — to do it.
Anxiety has led some in the St. Louis area, like Dr. Elizabeth Bergamini, to become “vaccine hunters.” Bergamini, 31, a pediatrician from Wildwood, spends her free time helping people in the St. Louis area find vaccine appointments in other regions.
She has helped over 50 people navigate online registrations and even drives them herself hours away to Hannibal, Rolla, Potosi, Cape Girardeau, Poplar Bluff and Sedalia, she said. Most are ages 65 to 75 who have conditions such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes or kidney disease.
“I’ve had people reach out to me daily to help them or their elderly family members,” Bergamini said. “People are desperate. It is heartbreaking.”
Schupp, whose district includes much of West County, said she was receiving complaints from her elderly and sick constituents. They were frustrated, the senator said, because they hadn’t gotten shots while counterparts in other regions or states had.
“People wanted answers, so we decided to ask the questions,” Schupp said.
State officials assured her doses were being distributed proportionally to the population, the senator said, but reports from residents and area providers frustrated with receiving no or low numbers of doses did not add up.
On Feb. 9, Schupp requested the number of doses shipped so far to each county. (The Post-Dispatch on Jan. 20 requested similar data that also includes a list of recipients. State officials have yet to respond.)
Schupp received the data on Feb. 11. The next day, she wrote a letter to Dr. Randall Williams, DHSS director, asking the department to rectify the distribution. “It is clear the most populated region in Missouri has not been sent its proportionate share of vaccine supply,” she wrote.
In addition to the disparities among counties, Schupp’s office compiled the data and also found differences among the state’s nine vaccine distribution regions in the rollout’s first eight weeks.
The St. Louis region — Region C — is made up of the city of St. Louis and 11 surrounding counties. Its estimated 2.3 million people make up 37% of the state’s population, yet it received 31% of the doses. Being on par would’ve brought about 39,000 more doses to the region.
“And, in Region C, where we have a high percentage of hospitals and health care providers, this is even more concerning,” Schupp wrote. Patient-facing health care workers were prioritized to get the vaccine first and for the first month, were the only ones eligible.
Each week, state health officials get notified of their federal allotment of vaccine. They choose how the doses will be distributed among providers across the state — the officials place the orders, and doses are sent straight to the providers.
Missouri’s plan since Feb. 1 has been to give 53% of the doses the state gets to hospital systems, proportional to each region’s population. An additional 23% goes to weekly mass vaccination events held in each region, which are not based on population. Each event distributes about 2,000 doses.
The other quarter of the pie goes to public health departments, federally qualified health centers that care for those on Medicaid or without insurance and other community providers. It is unclear whether these amounts are based on population.
At the same time Schupp’s office requested the county-level data on Feb. 9, other government officials in the St. Louis region were also questioning the equity of vaccine distribution; some like Dr. Alex Garza, director of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, began to speak out.
As director of the task force, which includes the region’s four major hospital systems, Garza meets frequently with local government and health department leaders. From what others were reporting about shipments, Garza said, St. Louis was not close to getting its fair share.
In plans for distribution for the following week of Feb. 15, state officials for the first time provided a breakdown of the number of doses and amounts that would be distributed to hospitals, clinics and health departments across Region C.
The amount would total 41,950 doses and equal 38% of the state’s allocation, in line with the region’s population.
Gov. Mike Parson’s office has insisted doses have been fairly distributed across regions. In a press conference Thursday, the governor provided a total number of first and second doses delivered to Region C to date, which he said amounted to 35% of the state’s shipments.
In response to questions about Schupp’s letter, the governor’s spokeswoman, Kelli Jones, wrote in an email, “Not every registered vaccinator will receive vaccine shipments every week, because simply we are not allotted enough vaccines to distribute the minimum shipment amounts to every eligible Missouri vaccinator every week.”
Schupp said she acknowledges the challenges but would like to see more transparency in who is getting shipped vaccine.
“Every day, we hear from constituents, some frustrated, some weary and some frightened,” she wrote in her letter. “Good information, sound data and a fair process is what helps alleviate fear, restore confidence and give people peace of mind.”
Drove 2½ hours in snow
“How far have you or will you travel to get a vaccine shot in Missouri?”
That’s what Robbie Norris, 31, of Maryland Heights, asked Wednesday in a private Facebook group created to help people in the St. Louis area find the vaccine. The St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info group has over 4,000 members.
Norris, who has diabetes, was able to get vaccinated at one of Region C’s mass vaccination events held over an hour away in Farmington on Feb. 4, he said. Since then, he has been scouring the Facebook pages of more than 100 local public health departments in Missouri looking for announcements about vaccination clinics and sharing them with the group.
“I get joy from trying to help other people,” Norris said. “I know what it’s like to look around and wonder, ‘Hey, how long is it going to take for someone to call me?’”
More than 100 people responded to his question, saying they’ve driven up to three hours one way to cities such as Caruthersville, Salem, Fredericktown and St. Robert.
The group includes numerous stories of people trying to find appointments for elderly parents whom they haven’t been able to see in months. Some are going through cancer treatments. Others can’t drive farther than an hour and are needing help finding more close by.
Members share phone numbers to hospitals for vaccine appointments. SSM Health spokeswoman Stephanie Zoller said the numbers are only meant for those notified about openings. The large increase in phone calls is preventing patients needing care from being able to get through, she said.
Kelly Halley, 45, of west St. Louis County, had registered her parents, both in their 80s, at multiple locations within the St. Louis region. But on Jan. 25, she found out about a mass vaccination event that was happening two days later in Cape Girardeau and was able to get spots for them.
Halley took time off work and arranged care for her children and their pets. It snowed that day, and it took them 2½ hours to get there, she said. Her father, who has dementia, was confused and agitated. Several times, she almost turned around. She’s taking them Wednesday for their second dose.
“It’s a terrible system and extremely difficult for caregivers to help vulnerable loved ones,” Halley said.
Tim Hodge, 65, of Eureka, said he did not expect to get a nearby appointment any time soon. On Tuesday, he said he drove with his wife, 66, to get doses at a Walmart in Brookfield, a seven-hour roundtrip.
Julie Herbert, 70, of High Ridge, who is waiting for an appointment, said, “If St. Louis is getting its fair share, why is everyone driving two hours to get vaccinated?”
Jones, with the governor’s office, said in her email that people who are able to travel may seek vaccines elsewhere.
“Missourians are seeking vaccine where there is availability, as would be expected,” Jones said. “It will take time to meet the vaccine demand in every individual community across the state.”
Availability is improving. St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield on Tuesday expanded its appointments to those 70 and older. The St. Louis County health department is expected to receive weekly shipments of at least 3,000 doses, and the city of St. Louis will get nearly 1,000.
The state’s first mass vaccination event in St. Louis County was scheduled for Saturday on the campus of University of Missouri-St. Louis.
On Monday, state health officials announced a new partnership with the statewide network of Area Agencies on Aging to help seniors with online vaccination registration, coordinate transportation for appointments and reminders for second doses.
Seniors can call their local hotline. The number for the agency serving the St. Louis area is 636-207-4326.
Halley said she considers her parents among the lucky ones, with family members able to spend hours on the phone or computer to get an appointment. “There are so many others waiting for a call, unable to find a slot, or unable to travel great lengths.”
Hartmann said he’ll keep trying find a dose for Sharp, calling around and watching the news with envy.
“When I see them lined up for miles with cars, just rolling up and getting a shot, I wonder, ‘What are their ages, and do they have any problems or health issues?’” he said.
“It’s very troublesome.”