After White House backlash, Missouri says it never rejected door-to-door vaccine outreach

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After the White House rebuked Gov. Mike Parson Thursday for saying Missouri would not welcome a federal door-to-door vaccination outreach strategy, the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services (DHSS) appeared to walk back his statements.

On Wednesday evening Parson tweeted: “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!”

But late Thursday, the department struck a more conciliatory tone.

“We do not have an email or message sent to the federal government regarding these efforts,” DHSS spokeswoman Lisa Cox wrote in an email to The Star.

“Door-to-door outreach is not an action we have taken at the state level, but that’s not to say it hasn’t been utilized at the local level,” Cox wrote. “As with many issues through the pandemic, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will work for every single community.”

Shortly before midnight Cox followed up to say, “You had asked for a message sent to the feds, and we do not have one to share. All communication has been verbal.”

Cox’s first statement put the state back in step with the White House message as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention epidemiologist arrived in Springfield — at the Parson administration’s request — to help southwest Missouri combat an aggressive outbreak of the delta COVID-19 variant that is overwhelming the region’s hospitals.

Dr. Cameron Webb, White House senior policy adviser for COVID-19 equity, told The Star on Wednesday the federal “surge response team” efforts could include encouraging local door-to-door vaccination outreach, “in the places where we think that kind of approach is going to be impactful.”

“There’s no one-size-fits-all with this pandemic,” he said.

The strategy includes 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,” President Biden said Tuesday.

Federal officials spent much of Thursday criticizing Parson’s statements, which echoed those of other Republican state officials who sought to characterize Biden’s plan as federal overreach, not outreach.

Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator, told reporters any door-to-door outreach was 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 said the outreach was done by volunteers and “grassroots voices,” not federal agents, and improved vaccination rates in Alabama, Georgia and Florida.

It is not clear if any local health officials in Missouri have attempted physical door-to-door vaccine outreach efforts. But many have used other elements of the Biden administration’s new approach.

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.

Cox wrote that DHSS has been “involved with many outreach efforts throughout the state working with faith-based communities and nonprofit organizations.”

“We do welcome assistance offered from the CDC and other federal partners and will continue working to make vaccines as accessible as possible to every willing Missourian,” she said.

Bryan Lowry contributed reporting from McClatchy’s DC Bureau.