Parson hints COVID vaccine eligibility will soon expand, including teachers

A+lawsuit+argued+that+only+state+health+director+Dr.+Randall+Williams%2C+seen+here+last+week+with+Gov.+Mike+Parson%2C+had+the+power+to+shut+down+businesses+in+Missouri.+

A lawsuit argued that only state health director Dr. Randall Williams, seen here last week with Gov. Mike Parson, had the power to shut down businesses in Missouri.

By Tessa Weinberg, Missouri Independent

Gov. Mike Parson said he’ll make an announcement Thursday on “moving forward on the vaccine phases,” citing an anticipated boost to the state’s vaccine supply following the expected authorization of Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine.

The governor’s comments came a day after state health officials told vaccine providers to prepare for eligibility for a COVID-19 vaccine to be expanded in the next week.

Expanded eligibility would mean teachers will “be able to get a vaccination pretty shortly,” Parson told Fox4 Kansas City and The Kansas City Star Wednesday during an episode of “4Star Politics.”

“There’s going to be really good things ahead. Matter of fact, things are going so well that I would assume … tomorrow will be a pretty big day for a pretty good announcement. I think you’re going to see us moving forward on the vaccine phases,” Parson said, later adding: “I think everybody will be very pleased with the direction we’re going and how we’re going to be able to move the teachers up.”

Calls from lawmakers and teachers have grown for educators to be made eligible now. While other states, like Kansas, have set aside extra doses specifically for teachers, Missouri officials have stressed they are prioritizing groups most at risk of developing severe illness if they were to contract the virus.

Under the state’s tiers, the K-12 education sector, which includes everyone from teachers to bus drivers, is next in line to be eligible under Tier 3 of Phase 1B.

Adam Crumbliss, the director of DHSS’ Division of Community and Public Health, said on Tuesday’s call with vaccinators that he doesn’t anticipate “an immediate switch,” but he encouraged vaccine providers to begin planning for how they would reach essential workers under Tier 3 of Phase 1B.

In addition to teachers, that tier also includes workers essential to critical infrastructure, like employees of food production facilities and workers in the transportation sector.

Currently, the state has been working to vaccinate groups like healthcare workers, nursing home residents and staff, people 65 years and older and those with certain underlying conditions with its allocation of Moderna and Pfizer vaccine.

The state may soon have a third vaccine to add to its supply. Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose vaccine that can be stored at normal refrigeration temperatures may be authorized for use as soon as this weekend.

But its arrival also ushers in a new set of questions for the state, such as which groups it will be targeted toward and overcoming hesitations around its efficacy.

Randall Williams, the director of the Department of Health and Senior Services, said earlier this month that if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is approved for emergency use this weekend, the state expects a “significant amount” of vaccine as soon as the first week of March.

But whether that will be enough to fully open up Tier 3 remains to be seen. State health officials have said there is not an exact metric or threshold for opening up the next tier. And currently, there is still not enough vaccine to administer to everyone who is already eligible.

Over 3 million residents are estimated to fall under the state’s currently activated tiers, which include people 65 years and older and those with certain underlying conditions. Meanwhile, 726,367 people have received at least their first dose through Wednesday, according to the state’s dashboard.

“The quicker we can vaccinate those in our activated phases, the sooner we can activate the next tier,” Parson said during a press conference last week.

During a meeting of Missouri’s Advisory Committee on Equitable COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution last week, members weighed whether the state should open the tier in anticipation of the increased supply.

Clay Goddard, the director of the Springfield-Greene County Health Department, suggested not opening the tier entirely, but instead prioritizing educators first. 

“I also would hope we could think about not moving into Tier 3 fully when we are still so far behind in tiers,” said Rex Archer, the director of health for the Kansas City Health Department and a member of the committee. “If we’re going to keep kindergarten through 12th up and running with this new variant that is more contagious, I do think we need to move the adults that are supporting K-12 education up into Tier 2.”

In a meeting earlier this month, Archer also said he hopes the state moves into the next tiers as a whole — noting that heavily populated areas like Kansas City have more residents to reach and may take longer to work through all those eligible in the current phases.

Goddard said that had been an issue that arose during the H1N1 pandemic, with smaller cities and counties moving onto lower-prioritized tiers while larger ones struggled to vaccinate the earlier tiers at the same rate.

“We just need to be careful that we’re diverting vaccine and getting those highest-risk acuity groups first,” Goddard said. “I really do believe that that’s very important if we’re going to do this the right way.”

Members of the advisory committee have also suggested people experiencing homelessness be prioritized for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it only requires a single shot and would not require returning to a clinic for a booster dose.

An analysis issued by the Food and Drug Administration Wednesday found that Johnson and Johnson’s vaccine offered strong protection against hospitalizations and death. It had an 86-percent efficacy rate against severe forms of COVID in the U.S. and a 72-percent overall efficacy rate in the U.S. Pfizer has said its vaccine is 95 percent effective, and Moderna said its vaccine is 94.5 percent effective.

The discrepancy may be something the state has to overcome when it comes to residents’ perceptions of which vaccine they’re offered. During last week’s advisory committee meeting, Crumbliss stressed the state is concerned about addressing it and making sure residents understand what research has shown.

“If you look at just some of the baseline initial efficacy data, it would give some a sense that it’s not as efficacious as the other vaccines of Moderna and Pfizer,” Crumbliss said, “but as you get into the more granular research and looking at its impact and effectiveness over a longitudinal period, it does demonstrate the capacity to be as effective as the other two vaccines currently in use.”

Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious disease expert, said late last month that while there may be a messaging issue, Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine is ultimately good news.

“From a practical standpoint — from what you want to do to keep people out of the hospital and prevent death — this is value added,” Fauci said.

This article is from the Missouri Independent.