Missouri Gov. Mike Parson, Donald Kauerauf and Robert Knodell of department of health and senior services

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson announces  a COVID-19 vaccine incentive program and introduces Donald Kauerauf as the new director of the department of health and senior services as acting director Robert Knodell looks on.

(The Center Square) – After introducing a $9 million plan to encourage COVID-19 vaccinations, Gov. Mike Parson pleaded with hesitant Missourians to avoid media reporting and talk with family members and health care providers about the vaccine.

“I ask you to turn off the clutter, the doom and gloom scenarios that are out there across our state,” Gov. Parson said during a press conference on Wednesday. “With all the misinformation out there and all the people with a political agenda talking about this virus, I ask you to go to your health care leaders in your communities, the people you trust. Talk to your doctors, clergy and the people you know who will give you good information about making a judgment on getting a vaccine.”

Parson later said the media – specifically naming the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and the Missouri Independent – were putting “fear into people’s minds just to cause chaos” about the pandemic.

“That is total propaganda that they’re putting out to people every day and it needs to stop,” the governor said. “People's lives depend on journalists – you, here telling the truth. And that's not hard to do. All you have to do is just be honest with the real information that’s out there and what's true and what's not. But I think that's the thing – everybody needs to just stop and take a breath.”

The incentive plan is designed to encourage vaccination for those age 12 and older. During the next three months, 900 Missourians who have been or will get vaccinated will win cash or education savings account prizes worth $10,000. Once vaccinated, Missourians must enter the sweepstakes at MOstopscovid.com/win. There will be three categories for entrants:

Red: Age 18 and older receiving at least one dose before July 21, 2021;

White: Age 18 and up receiving at least one dose after July 21;

Blue: Ages 12 to 17 receiving one dose at any time.

Eighty winners will be randomly selected for $10,000 during each drawing from the red and white categories (10 from each congressional district). During each drawing, 20 from the blue category will receive a $10,000 education savings account through the Missouri State Treasurer’s MOST 529 program. Robert Knodell, acting director of the Missouri department of health and senior services, said an additional $11 million is available to local public health agencies that submit plans for distributing $25 for each vaccine recipient. 

Low vaccination rates throughout the state and the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant led the leader of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force to recommend wearing masks on Tuesday.

“We are strongly encouraging all citizens of our region to return to – or to continue wearing – masks in public places,” said Dr. Clay Dunagan, a professor of infectious diseases at the Washington University School of Medicine and the senior vice president and chief clinical officer at BJC HealthCare. “This is not currently being mandated, but it is a personal decision that all of us can make to use one of the most effective weapons we have to mitigate the surge we’re currently experiencing.”

Dr. Nathan Bahr, an infectious disease specialist with the University of Kansas Health System that serves western Missouri, emphasized the effectiveness of masks in a video update on Tuesday.

“There’s a lot of word of mouth or sharing on social media of a lot of nonsense stories,” Bahr said. “The truth is that masking works. Those folks who are saying that it does not are misinformed.”

During a news conference on Wednesday, St. Louis County Executive Sam Page said the county health department is closely monitoring increases in cases but isn’t mandating masks.

“While we don't have an announcement to make today, this is a topic of conversation and it's ongoing,” Page said. “For the moment, we urge everyone to wear masks even if you are vaccinated.”

DHSS reported an average of 1,390 new cases per day during the last seven days, a 22% increase compared to the previous seven days. Since July 7, the department issued COVID-19 hotspot advisories for 17 counties.

DHSS data shows 40.4% of Missourians are fully vaccinated. The state reports an average of 10,500 vaccinations per day during the last seven days; during the first week of April, the seven-day average was approximately 53,000 per day.

“We’re seeing vaccine hesitancy morph into vaccine hostility,” Page said. “We can’t let complacency or misinformation be barriers to the preventable.”

Vaccination rates in the state's two largest metropolitan areas are below the statewide rate. About 38.4% are fully vaccinated in Kansas City and 34.9% in the city of St. Louis. Statewide, 24.6% of Black or African-Americans are fully vaccinated and 37.9% identifying as Hispanic or Latino.

In an article for Health Progress magazine, Dr. Alex Garza, who previously led the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force before being deployed earlier this month with his U.S. Army Reserve unit to Kuwait, identified the challenges of providing pandemic care to all people.

“Risk, in life and in a pandemic, is not equally distributed across the population,” Garza wrote. “Risk of contracting and having a poor outcome from COVID differs at the individual level and at a societal level – a result of conditions placed upon populations from prolonged neglect and discrimination.”

In other pandemic developments throughout the state:

  • Missouri’s department of elementary and secondary education stated it would distribute its back-to-school guidelines later this week. “Masking is the only way we have of protecting children from getting infected,” Dunagan said, noting children under 12 aren’t eligible for the vaccine. “And while kids typically don't get as sick from COVID, sometimes they do and they become an important source of infection for others in the community.”
  • The three largest health systems serving eastern Missouri—BJC HealthCare, SSM Health and Mercy—will require employees to be vaccinated by the end of September.
  • Leaders of the four largest colleges in the Springfield area urged people to get vaccinated during a press conference on Tuesday.
  • The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry launched a campaign to recognize businesses achieving at least a 70% vaccination rate. In addition to receiving a “COVID Stops Here” designation for websites and office windows, the Chamber will provide materials to help celebrate the accomplishment.

Staff Reporter

Joe Mueller covers Missouri for The Center Square. After seven years of reporting for daily newspapers in Illinois and Missouri, he spent the next 30 years in public relations serving non-profit organizations and as a strategic communications consultant.