Under a Short-Lived Committee, Some Businesses Jumped Ahead in Missouri Vaccine Line

click to enlarge Vaccine lines come in many forms, like this one in St. Louis City last month. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
Vaccine lines come in many forms, like this one in St. Louis City last month.

This story was originally published by the Missouri Independent.

In the span of 10 minutes in late February, a panel of state officials signed off on nearly 1,300 people skipping ahead in Missouri’s COVID-19 vaccination line to receive a shot sooner.

About 25 minutes later, another 325 were elevated.

It all happened during the first of five meetings of the Missouri Vaccine Priority Phase Advisory Committee, as the group of bureaucrats methodically worked through a list of applicants who were requesting their businesses jump to a higher tier than what the state originally placed them in.

Few were successful.

That was, in part, because the committee quickly became obsolete as Gov. Mike Parson announced the activation of subsequent tiers sooner than anticipated — making many of the applications moot by the time the committee met to consider them.

Through an open records request, The Independent obtained applications and decision letters for 88 organizations that had been submitted for the committee’s consideration. Of the 88 that had been received through mid-March, at least 17 received letters approving their move to a higher tier and 70 were denied. A corresponding decision letter was not provided for one application.

Of those approved, most were large healthcare and pharmaceutical corporations, like Centene and Mallinckrodt Pharmaceuticals, in addition to the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission and libraries.

The remaining submissions, which spanned public school systems, universities, grocery store chains, hotels and a hair salon, were told they’d have to wait their turn.

The applications give insight into some industries’ frustrations with the tier they were placed in, as well as desperate pleas by small business owners trying to protect their employees and customers.

“I believe that in order to protect not only ourselves, but also our clients a higher phase is needed for our industry and small businesses to make it through this,” wrote the owner of a small hair salon in St. Louis. “We will be able to be a safer establishment, advocates for the vaccine and it will help our stylists start returning to their normal pay checks as well.”

The committee

Formed through an emergency rule filed in early February, the nine-member committee was led by Robert Knodell, Parson’s deputy chief of staff, and made up of representatives from eight state agencies, including the departments of agriculture, conservation, economic development, health, labor, natural resources, public safety and transportation.

The committee’s meetings followed a pattern, efficiently working through a list of applications received and voting on whether the organization met definitions for the requested tier outlined in the state’s health order.

Industry sectors were based on the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency’s guidelines.

After the committee issued a recommendation, Randall Williams, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, had five business days to issue a final written decision.

The redundancy of the committee became apparent at its first meeting on Feb. 25, when it convened less than an hour after Parson announced that teachers, grocery store workers and other critical infrastructure sectors would be eligible to receive the vaccine starting March 15 under Phase 1B Tier 3.

“So some of these decisions for some of these groups — they will find themselves in an eligible tier potentially by March the 15th if they are not in one already,” Knodell said during the meeting.

That meant groups who made formal requests, like the St. Louis and Kansas City school districts and grocery store chains like Aldi and Schnucks, remained in their original tier.

A similar situation played out a week later, when Knodell recommended any additional organizations requesting to be moved from Tier 3 of Phase 1B to Tier 2 be tabled, since Tier 3 would be opening in 11 days.

“And my concern is the amount of time that it would take for Dr. Williams to adjudicate those requests, we would already be in the eligible tier for those entities,” Knodell said. “And certainly, even if he was able to act on that sooner, by the time they could plan vaccinations for their employees we would be there anyway.”

The emergency rule that established the committee outlined it would expire Aug. 23. But the committee recommended at its last meeting on March 25 that it be suspended with the final phases of the state’s tiers opening soon.

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