Vaccine incentives coming to Missouri: Gov. Mike Parson to announce program Wednesday

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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson will announce a statewide COVID-19 vaccination incentive program Wednesday as cases and hospitalizations soar in areas of the state.

The announcement comes after weeks of the Republican governor weighing incentives. Parson was initially reluctant but his stance has softened over time.

Details of the incentive plan weren’t immediately available. The governor’s office said Parson plans to hold a news conference Wednesday where he would “announce a statewide vaccine incentive program” and name a new leader for the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services after its past head resigned earlier this year.

Southwest Missouri has been a virus hotspot, with case surges driven by the highly-contagious delta variant. Hospitals in Springfield have been pushed to the breaking point, with the number of patients exceeding previous pandemic highs.

But cases are rising in other parts of the state, including in the Kansas City metro, leading health officials fearful that the crisis in the southwest may soon spread to other areas.

The average number of confirmed new cases each day has risen from 473 a month ago to 1,279 this weekend, according to the state health department. A month ago, 761 people were hospitalized with COVID-19; on Sunday it was 1,436.

At the same time, Missouri has fully vaccinated just 40% of its population, according to data compiled by The New York Times. Some counties have fully vaccinated less than 20% of all residents.

Last week, Parson revealed that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had rejected Missouri’s proposal to use CDC funds for a vaccine lottery. A CDC epidemiologist is in Springfield at Missouri’s request as part of a federal “surge response” team helping combat the delta outbreak through genetic sequencing of the virus and addressing vaccine hesitancy.

CDC rules cap cash vaccine incentives at $25 per person and do not allow for games of chance, a spokesperson said last week. Missouri officials felt that amount was not enough “to significantly increase vaccine uptake,” health department spokeswoman Lisa Cox said, and were working on alternative programs.

The state previously considered an incentive with the Missouri Lottery that would feature a “substantial grand prize.”

Parson also plans Wednesday to announce the appointment of a new health department director. The previous director, Dr. Randall Williams, resigned at Parson’s request in the middle of the state’s vaccination efforts in April. Parson’s administration has refused to release Williams’ resignation letter.

His departure came after a series of controversies in which critics suggested Williams made decisions based on politics rather than public health.

He and Parson stood by each other in a pandemic response that many health experts believed was too hands-off. Williams also led the health department when it refused to renew the license of Missouri’s only abortion clinic, a Planned Parenthood in St. Louis, in 2018. In the legal battle that followed, Williams testified that his department, looking for evidence of failed abortions at the clinic, had kept a spreadsheet of patients’ menstrual cycles.

Parson’s deputy chief of staff, Robert Knodell, has been acting director since the resignation. Knodell does not have a medical background.

The governor has said he plans to use the opportunity of appointing a new director, along with an influx of federal funding during the pandemic, to remake the health department. He has not provided details on the changes.

“I think you’ll see that whole department, that whole agency be rebuilt,” he said in April.

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