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Editorial: Cities are slighted in Missouri's vaccine distribution. It's time for a new model.

Editorial: Cities are slighted in Missouri's vaccine distribution. It's time for a new model.

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Lincoln County holds mass vaccination clinic

A security worker helps direct a traffic as cars line up during a mass vaccination event at the Lincoln County Fairgrounds in Troy, Mo., on Jan. 29. 

Gov. Mike Parson still denies what too many Missourians have discovered is true: The state’s distribution of coronavirus vaccine is tilted toward low-population rural areas, forcing urban residents in St. Louis and Kansas City to either drive long distances or do without. That situation fed a debacle last week in which several rural distribution centers were so lightly attended that desperate staffers, faced with the potential spoilage of doses, took to social media to invite people in from more populous areas.

While Parson still denies the fundamental problem, he announced Monday that the urban centers will get a more appropriate share of the new single-dose vaccine arriving this week. That’s a start, but an overhaul of the state’s distribution model is still needed.

That model distributes vaccine based on the state’s nine Highway Patrol regions. Those regions may make sense when dividing administration over the state’s highways, but how does that translate into vaccine distribution when some regions contain both dense and sparse population areas?

St. Louis, for example, is in Region C — alongside 11 counties, mostly rural or exurban. Parson’s administration, pushing back on criticism from urban political leaders, has gone to pains to show that Region C contains 37% of the state’s population and has so far received 36% of the state’s available vaccines. That, they argue, equals regional equity.

But unmentioned is that almost 60% of the people in Region C live on one small edge of it, within the boundaries of St. Louis County or city. Those more than 1.3 million urban residents are lumped in with far-flung rural communities stretching north almost to Hannibal and south almost to Cape Girardeau. While each region as a whole may be getting equitable percentages of vaccine, distribution within those regions has slighted the urban areas.

Last month, a consulting firm hired by the state confirmed that expanding portions of St. Louis and Kansas City were “vaccine deserts,” even as access to vaccinations was becoming easier in the state as a whole. The tragic irony is that those two urban centers are home to the state’s largest Black populations, which have been hit harder by the virus than the general population.

The state’s vaccine distribution model should recognize the unique needs of urban centers like St. Louis and target resources more precisely. While Parson’s announcement on Monday doesn’t acknowledge the state’s failure on this front, it does specify that, of the 50,000 doses of the new single-dose vaccine expected in Missouri this week, 10% will be distributed at “targeted vaccination sites in St. Louis and Kansas City” — two cities which, together, comprise close to 8% of the state’s population.

That’s what equity looks like, but it’s notable that it takes working outside Missouri’s standard nine-region distribution model to get there. It’s time for a new model.

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