In late January, data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed that Missouri was ranked dead-last among all states in terms of vaccination rates, prompting residents to get creative to secure their shots. Those in the major metropolitan areas, especially, have begun traveling to rural communities that are flush with vaccines, while some of those same communities have opened up eligibility to ensure their shots don't go to waste. For this week's cover story, two RFT writers tried their hands at getting vaccinated and reported back. For the other story in this package, click here.
I first heard of the elusive "vaccinated 23-year-old" scenario a month ago.
In the tales passed along through word of mouth, text messages and hastily coded websites, people at the back end of the system of vaccine-eligibility tiers had leaped months ahead of schedule simply by calling around to hospitals and mass vaccination events to find unused doses that would otherwise land in the trash can. I had heard second-hand that some hospitals were having to throw away vaccines. It seemed plausible enough. Vials contained multiple doses, which were highly perishable. That meant all doses had to be used within a couple hours of a vial being opened. As the stories went, hospitals sometimes couldn't find enough eligible people for all the activated shots and would inject them into the arms of anyone who could drop in before the vaccine expired.
I decided I would call a few hospitals. If I ended up with a vaccine, great. If not, no big deal.
I dialed St. John's Mercy Medical Center.
"Hi. I heard that if there are leftover vaccines, you throw them out. If that's true, could I get one?"
There was a pause on the other end. "Um, this is the front desk. I'll transfer you."
Click — the phone rang. I crossed my legs and tapped a finger. There was a beep, then the line dropped. I frowned, then called Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
"Hi, my name is Jack, and I heard that you guys throw out vaccines at the end of the day?"
"No, we don't do that."
I tried to think of a reply. "Um ...." A few seconds passed.
"Have a nice day." The woman hung up.
I sat there for a while, looking at the model kits my dad keeps near the ceiling — the Incredible Hulk wrestling with a dinosaur, Superman punching his way through a brick wall. Maybe calling wasn't the best method.
The next day, I drove to Barnes. I suppose there are other hospitals I could've gone to (and I have a feeling rural hospitals are more likely to give you a leftover vaccine), but I'm more familiar with BJC, and I like the Central West End.
Having parked, I loitered near an Applebee's, then Euclid Avenue, and perused the hospital signs. Where would Barnes keep its vaccines? Siteman Cancer Center? That seemed wrong. That was the building for advanced medicine. Were vaccines advanced medicine?
The parceling out of vaccines has been a confusing, haphazard operation across the country. No one seems to know where to go or what to do. In the vacuum of clear procedures, private citizens have started cobbling together shot-tracking Facebook groups and hastily coded websites to point people toward temporary bounties. Missouri's rollout has been particularly clumsy, oversupplying rural areas and undersupplying St. Louis and Kansas City. Every day brings more accounts of urbanites with the ability and resources scurrying across the state in search of doses.
In the background are questions of the morality of the system as debates rage about who gets vaccinated and when. Missouri Governor Mike Parson infuriated educators when he initially refused to prioritize teachers, even as he pushed to open schools. He has also admitted there are "vaccine deserts" in parts of the cities — an inequality that has hit primarily Black and brown neighborhoods especially hard.
It's clear that the state has done a poor job getting shots to those who need them most. But what is the morality of letting shots go to waste? I'm young and healthy, and that understandably places me at the lowest priority in the state's tiered system. Am I jumping the line if excess shots are available and would otherwise go to waste? Maybe it's as simple as what I'd heard in all those accounts of vaccinated twenty-somethings: It was better than extra doses landing in the trash can.
At Barnes, I walked through the doorway into a big lobby. The ceilings were high above clean hardwood floors. People lounged in leather chairs. Poles with retractable straps (the kind school cafeterias use) created a single lane leading from the entrance to a plastic foldout table. Behind the table sat two women, nearly identical, who wore face guards over their masks. In order to enter the building, you had to first approach the women.
I walked up. One of them peered down at a piece of paper and said, "Have you had any symptoms of COVID-19? Have you been in contact with anyone who has tested positive in the past fourteen days? Have you experienced any symptoms of COVID-19, including loss of taste, smell ...." After she finished, I said, "No." She peeled a sticker off a roll and handed it to me. There was a "2" written on it. The other stickers had 2s too.
"Actually, I had a question about vaccines," I said as I placed the sticker on my jeans. "Is this where you give vaccines?"
"Oh." She pointed to her left. "Talk to him."
A man sat behind a desk. He was thin, wearing a gray suit and bent over paperwork.
"Hi. I have some questions about vaccines."
"We have a website for that." He opened a laptop. "I can give you the link."
Internally, I sighed. I knew the website he was talking about, and it wouldn't help.
"Actually, I'm a reporter."
"You are? I used to be a reporter. Jeffrey Small for Channel 5." He squinted. "You know, you should be going through media relations."
Media relations. I already knew that was a dead end. Phone calls with people in tinny voices.
"Oh. Technically, I'm an intern. This is my second week."
"I see. You like it?"
"That's good. I'll give you their number." He tore a sheet of paper off a notepad, then paused. "Who are you with again?"
"The Riverfront Times."
He nodded, then began writing.
We talked a little more before he handed me a note and I walked out of the hospital.
A few days passed, and Small's note remained untouched on my desk. This didn't matter, because I got a text from my sister:
"Just an FYI if anyone is interested....The Belleville Fairgrounds are doing a drive thru covid vaccine event tomorrow-this weekend and need people to sign up so the vaccines don't go to waste."
Her text included a long, random-looking website and an eight-character registration code.
"It says it was for people over 75 and healthcare workers only, but they didn't have enough people under this category registered and they've opened it to the public."
My sister added, "A friend sent this!"
I followed the link and began filling in information. No way this works, I thought. I hit submit. "Registration complete," the page said. My appointment was in two days. I jumped around the house, still holding my phone. It seemed I'd found my scenario.