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Coronavirus

Missouri Health Officials Hope FDA’s Pfizer Approval Spurs Vaccinations

Mercy Hospital South chaplain, the Rev. Bill Cardy, speaks to reporters after becoming one of the first Missourians to receive a coronavirus vaccination Monday, December 14, 2020.
Theo Welling
/
File Photo / Special to St. Louis Public Radio
The Rev. Bill Cardy, Mercy Hospital South chaplain, speaks to reporters after becoming one of the first Missourians to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine in 2020.

Health officials in Missouri are hoping the Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine will boost the state’s lagging vaccination rates.

The agency on Monday announced the approval of the drug for patients 16 and older, giving the shots the same level of approval as flu vaccines and other immunizations. Until now, Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has been in use under an emergency order.

“Everyone can feel comfortable that this vaccine has met all the same criteria for licensure that all previous vaccines have, that other medicines prescribed by doctors have,” said Dr. Hilary Babcock, prevention medical director at BJC HealthCare and infectious diseases physician at Washington University. “I do think that some people who were worried about that authorization process will be assured by this.”

Public health experts have blamed low vaccination rates in Missouri for the rise in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations this summer. Close to 54% of Missouri adults are fully vaccinated. In a handful of the state’s rural counties, the vaccination rate remains below 20%, according to the state health department.

At least one hospital system in the state used the news as a reason to mandate vaccines for their employees. Shortly after the FDA’s announcement, Springfield-based CoxHealth announced it will mandate vaccines for all employees or require them to be tested for the coronavirus weekly.

“Even though we felt the safety and efficacy data was sufficient, this is that last step,” said Steve Edwards, the CEO of the health system, which operates several hospitals throughout southern Missouri. “I think for employees who are hesitant, this is the step that should give them the utmost confidence that this is safe and effective.”

CoxHealth will take religious or medical exemptions into account, Edwards said. He expects more than 10% of employees to request exemptions. However, employees who are granted such exemptions could face being reassigned to other roles so they don’t have direct contact with sick or at-risk patients, he said.

More than 50 Cox employees have been hospitalized with COVID-19, none of whom had been vaccinated, he said.

“It certainly has been a holdout position for many to argue that they aren’t going to do it until it’s FDA approved,” Edwards said. “Will they really do it after that? I don’t know.”

The four major health systems in the St. Louis region this summer announced they would mandate all employees to get vaccinated by fall.

Other health companies are still holding off on mandating vaccinations.

A spokesman for Quincy-based Blessing health system said the news does not yet change its current policy, in which vaccines are encouraged but not mandated.

The Biden administration announced last week that all nursing home staff will be required to be vaccinated. Terry Walsh, CEO of Friendship Village Senior Living, said this mandate will likely mean he will lose employees — even with the FDA approval.

“It’s been a struggle to find employees to start with,” he said. “Now with a mandatory vaccination requirement from the government, some will have to leave employment either voluntarily or involuntarily.”

Yet the approval will likely help boost COVID-19 vaccination rates in nursing home facilities, Walsh said.

“I think it’s going to change the thoughts of some of those people who have been waiting and hesitant because it’s been an emergency issued vaccine,” he said. “Now that it has been fully approved, it may change their minds and cause them to be more comfortably vaccinated.”

As of now, 68% of nursing home employees at Friendship Village facilities have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.

It’s likely the approval will incentivize many other businesses and organizations to mandate vaccinations, doctors said.

Ferguson-Florissant School District already had announced vaccination mandates for employees ahead of the school year.

On Monday, a spokesperson for St. Louis Public Schools said that officials are taking note of the FDA’s approval and that it will play a role in their consideration of a vaccine mandate for employees.

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