As CDC arrives, Parson says door-to-door vaccine strategy not welcome in Missouri

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As the federal government arrives in Springfield at Missouri’s request to combat a surge of aggressive COVID-19 variant cases, Gov. Mike Parson has warned against going door-to-door urging vaccination.

“I have directed our health department to tell the federal government that sending government employees or agents door-to-door to compel vaccination would NOT be an effective OR welcome strategy in Missouri!” Parson wrote on Twitter on Wednesday night.

“We will continue to offer convenient vaccination options to all Missourians for those who want a COVID-19 vaccine,” he added.

The characterization was quickly refuted Thursday by a White House official who said the outreach is not being done by federal agents alone.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced a strategy to boost vaccinations by sending more doses to trusted local pharmacies and family doctors, encouraging employers to promote vaccinations at work and deploying mobile vaccine clinics to community events.

“We need to go community by community, neighborhood by neighborhood, and oftentimes, door to door — literally knocking on doors — to get help to the remaining people...” he said. “We’re going to put even more emphasis on getting vaccinated in your community, close to home, conveniently at a location you’re already familiar with.”

Asked about Parson’s comment, Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, warned against efforts to mischaracterize the door-to-door outreach, which is being conducted on a local level by doctors, faith leaders and other trusted community messengers in partnership with the administration.

“We’ve seen movement by going person by person, community by community in states where neighbors have contacted neighbors. This is important work that’s leading to more vaccinations and it’s done by people who care about the health of their family, friends and neighbors,” Zients said.

“So I would say for those individuals or organizations that are feeding misinformation and trying to mischaracterize this type of trusted messenger work, I believe you are doing a disservice to the country and to the doctors, the faith leaders, the community leaders and others who are working to get people vaccinated, save lives and help end this pandemic.”

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki also pushed back on Parson’s characterization later in the day. She said the administration has partnered with local community leaders around the country on vaccine outreach since April.

“These are grassroots voices across the country. They are not members of the government. They are not federal government employees. They are volunteers. They are clergy. They are trusted voices in community that are playing this role and door-knocking,” Psaki said.

She said the approach has improved vaccination rates in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. “In our view, this is a way to engage and empower local activists, trusted members of the community,” Psaki said.

Aspects of the Biden administration’s strategy have been employed in Missouri already, though it is not clear if any local efforts have employed door-to-door interactions.

Health officials in Taney County, Livingston County and across rural Missouri have told The Star they offer vaccination clinics in local workplaces and have relied on churches, local physicians and other trusted local voices to encourage vaccination.

In Kansas City, UMKC received a $1.9 million federal grant last fall to work with African American churches expanding COVID testing in their communities. It also has undertaken an effort, funded by $5 million in federal aid from Jackson County, to get 120 “community leaders and liaisons” including churches and youth groups involved in promoting vaccines in Kansas City’s medically under-served east side.

Spokeswomen for Parson and the Missouri health department did not immediately respond when asked whether the state supports those efforts.

Parson’s comment warning against federal outreach on vaccines coincides with the arrival of federal help to the state at the explicit request of Parson’s administration.

The first of a two-person “surge response team” from the federal government, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist, arrived in Springfield on Wednesday.

Missouri and Greene County had requested help from the team as it faces an onslaught of COVID cases, driven by the more infectious and deadly delta variant.

In addition, the CDC has provided a communication specialist to assist the state’s Bureau of Immunizations with vaccine hesitancy and low vaccination rates, which has caused COVID cases to surge.

No county in southwest Missouri has more than 35% of its population fully vaccinated; statewide, the number is just under 40%. Experts say 70-80% is needed for herd immunity. The recent outbreak has affected mostly the unvaccinated population, local health and hospital officials have said.

The team is in Missouri is in place until August 6. The CDC epidemiologist will provide assistance with genetic sequencing and data analysis as health officials investigate an outbreak potentially related to the delta variant, a Biden administration official said Wednesday.

Surge teams have also been deployed to neighboring states of Illinois and Arkansas.

During Thursday’s COVID-19 administration briefing, Biden administration officials pointed to southern Missouri and northern Arkansas as areas where the delta variant is surging.

CDC Director Rachelle Wallensky said in parts of the Midwest the variant accounts for 80 % of cases based on early sequencing.

“In those areas, again we’ve demonstrated high rates of disease, lower rates of vaccination. We are really encouraging people who are not vaccinated yet, go get vaccinated and wear a mask until you do,” Wallensky said about the region.

Parson’s criticism of door-to-door outreach echoed the comments of several other Republican state officials who have pushed back.

Some states’ surge team efforts could include going door-to-door for outreach, Dr. Cameron Webb, White House senior policy adviser for COVID-19 equity, told The Star on Wednesday. But Webb emphasized the team in Missouri would partner with local leaders to determine what works best in each community.

“In the places where we think that kind of approach is going to be impactful, certainly, we’re going to encourage it,” Webb said. “There’s no one-size-fits-all with this pandemic. We’ve seen that in every aspect of this pandemic. So this is truly right-sizing the intervention to the locality.”

Pressure has mounted on Parson to push vaccination more aggressively as the delta variant slams hospitals in southwest Missouri.

On Wednesday, he told reporters his administration is considering an incentive program. But he has largely emphasized taking a vaccine is a personal responsibility, and pointed to higher vaccination rates among the 65-and-older population.

“We want to do what we can to encourage people to take the vaccine,” he said.

Lowry reported from McClatchy’s DC bureau.

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