In an effort to better balance COVID-19 vaccine supplies with public demand, state officials on Monday rolled out a new distribution plan that uses Missouri’s regional hospitals as key vaccination sites.

Freeman Health System and Mercy Hospital Joplin will begin receiving increased vaccine doses next week from the Department of Health and Senior Services. The doses will be used to inoculate Southwest Missouri residents who are eligible for a shot but due to inadequate federal supplies have not been able to obtain one. Officials said what this means for Joplin-area residents who fall under Phase 1A and Tier 1 and Tier 2 of Phase 1B “is we will have a more consistent vaccine supply in our area and that will allow us to open up more appointments and to get more vaccines into arms quicker,” said Sarah Boyd, Mercy’s director of pharmacy.

“Mercy has not had any vaccine supply from the state in several weeks … and so it will be welcomed to be able to open up additional appointments and have those (doses) available for folks," Boyd said.

According to numbers provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, just 4% of Missourians last week had received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, last among all 50 U.S. states, which in part prompted Monday's distribution system overhaul.

“There’s a lot of empathy for those members of our community that are trying, and getting on every website possible (to sign up) and still aren’t able to get the vaccine,” Boyd said, “so I’m hopeful — very hopeful — that this will help ease frustrations.”

Under the new plan, the state is committing 53% of its nearly 76,000 weekly vaccine doses — all first shots, not the second booster shots — to hospitals located in nine regions. The five hospitals in Southwest Missouri are Freeman Health System, Mercy Hospital Joplin, Mercy Hospital Springfield, CoxHealth of Springfield and Cox Medical Center Branson.

Sources say 11,400 total doses, received every other week beginning next week, will be split among Freeman Health System and the Mercy hospitals in Joplin and Springfield. Another 11,400 doses will be distributed among the Cox hospitals in Springfield and Branson starting this week. Hospital officials will then collaborate among themselves as to what doses go where.

“We will work it out between us and Mercy and just do what is best so we can give the shots as quickly as possible (to the public),” said Jeff Thompson, vice president of pharmacy services for Freeman Health System.

The new system will make it easier for both Joplin-based hospitals to schedule vaccination appointments in the near future.

“Up until now, we really didn’t know what we were getting (number of doses) until we got it, or right before it was shipped to us,” Thompson said, which is why the hospital has so far avoided setting up public vaccination clinics. But now “we’ll have a more consistent supply so we can schedule these larger clinics. Now we know we’re on a cycle of every two-week shipments and we’re going to get X amount of the vaccine.”

The state is also expecting Missouri hospitals to use up the fresh vaccine supplies within seven days of shipment.

“I think the one advantage that our health care system has right now is that we have the infrastructure already in place because we were giving the vaccine to our co-workers earlier, and I think that helps us be in a position to help,” Boyd said.

“The one thing I hope people remember after all this is over is that the hospitals, both us and Mercy, have been the ones who have responded to COVID — who took care of patients and are now being called to do the vaccines for our community as well,” Thompson said.

Concerning the state’s remaining 47% of available doses, another 23% will go to regional mass vaccination events in partnership with local groups and the Missouri National Guard. Another 8% will be allocated to local public health agencies, and another 8% will go to federally qualified health centers. The remaining 8% will go to any other enrolled or community providers asking for the vaccine, Department of Health and Senior Services officials said.

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