Emily Filmore left her house well before sunrise, traveled more than 100 miles and waited for four hours before she finally got the COVID-19 vaccine she had been seeking for weeks.
Filmore, 44, had scoured the websites of every health department in Missouri after signing up on multiple lists locally. She has an uncontrolled autoimmune disease and several other health conditions, and takes medicine that suppresses her immune system. In St. Louis County, where she lives, her conditions didn’t qualify her as a priority for the vaccine. She wrote many emails to the state and county health departments, pointing out that doctors say people like her face a great risk from the virus, but to no avail.
People in rural areas in Missouri have had greater supply and easier access to the vaccine than suburban and urban areas, so Filmore, like many others who have been languishing on local lists, headed for the country. She learned that there would be a walk-in vaccination clinic in Hannibal, Missouri, and checked in advance to find out if she would qualify. They said she did.
Filmore set out on her pre-dawn road trip with a couple of friends and a Travel John -- urinating in a bag due to a lack of restrooms while she waited in line for hours in her car. Once they arrived at the Hannibal exit, they waited on the shoulder of the highway with hundreds of others before the parking lot to the site opened.
Eventually -- finally -- it was Filmore’s turn.
“I was in tears getting the shot because I was so relieved,” Filmore said. Her 14-year-old daughter called shortly after, and started crying and shouting for joy that her mom was finally vaccinated.
Filmore said she can’t understand the disparity between the vaccine supplies in her home city and county versus the far less populated rural areas. Could it be because Gov. Mike Parson, a pro-Trump Republican who refused repeated calls for a mask mandate, wanted to reward those areas that supported him?
“I don’t know why he would punish the other citizens in the state,” Filmore said. She struggled with her own decision to seek the potentially lifesaving vaccine: She could afford to spend days researching the options and then traveling to receive the shot. What about those who need it just as desperately, but can’t do that?
Kandi Karger, 39, of Ellisville, Missouri, has rheumatic heart disease and has five young children at home. Her doctor told her to get on every list she possibly could. She spent days constantly refreshing the websites of health departments to see if an appointment might become available. The minute a time slot opened up in Rolla, she grabbed it.
Rolla was about 80 miles away, but Karger had been looking at places hundreds of miles farther.
“When you’ve spent the last year of life living like you are in a bubble, you’ll drive anywhere,” she said. She also wondered why the vaccine distribution has been so inequitable in Missouri.
“When you take a public oath, you have to look out for the whole state, and in my opinion, Parson isn’t doing that,” she said.
Missouri’s vaccine rollout has consistently ranked among the worst in the country. When Dr. Alex Garza, the head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, pointed out recently that the region was receiving less than half of the vaccine allotment it should be, based on population, Parson accused him of lying.
That’s not too convincing for working moms like Amy Ridling, 36, who lives in St. Charles. She works in public education in a school that is holding in-person classes. Frontline educators in next-door Illinois are eligible to get the vaccine now, but in Missouri, they are not.
In the middle of a severe winter storm, Ridling secured an appointment across the state line in O’Fallon, Illinois. The entire trip took five hours, including the time she had to pull over because the roads were so terrible and visibility so limited from the storm.
She was able to get the shot at a Walgreens there.
“You’re going to tell teachers that you have to be in front of all these kids or lose your job, but then, you’re not going to give them access to the vaccine,” she said. “I think it’s a real clear message from our state leadership about what they value.”