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Vaccine-help group faces charges of politics, censorship

A Facebook group hailed by local media for helping St. Louisans find vaccination sites for scarce COVID-19 vaccines is facing criticism and defections for banishing group members who post about vaccine inequities in Black neighborhoods or the causes of vaccine shortages in metro St. Louis.

Group administrators claim posts are deleted and members removed from the group if they post about anything except specific advice on where to obtain vaccines, even though many undeleted posts on the group page veer from that guidance. Critics claim the group is focused on the Darwinian struggle by St. Louisans to obtain vaccines, at the expense of larger discussions about topics ranging from whether white people should travel to Black-majority aeas to get vaccinated, to criticisms of the administration of Gov. Mike Parson over charges that the distribution of vaccines to urban areas has been mismanaged.

The criticism of the Facebook group, the St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info group, comes at the same time Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has requested that the federal government step in and establish mass vaccination sites in Kansas City and St. Louis because of state-controlled vaccine shortages in both metro regions. 

Meanwhile, the Missouri Independent reports that a consulting firm hired by Parson issued a report to the state Feb. 8 confirming that the state had shortchanged the most populous areas of the state in favor of vaccines’ being shipped to rural areas, where political support for Parson and Republicans is strongest.

 The report from Deloitte Consulting confirmed that St. Louis had the largest gap between total population and the number of people vaccinated, and recommended that more mass vaccination centers be set up by the state in urban areas. The report was delivered to Parson three days before he accused Dr. Alex Garza, head of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, of “lying” when Garza complained about inadequate vaccines in the St. Louis area.

When the St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info group was established, it received widespread coverage on Feb. 23 by both KMOV and KSDK television as a crowd-sourced way for desperate St. Louis-area residents to find vaccines.

Administrators for the site declined to talk about it. But Terry Linkemer, who says she’s worked with the site to book vaccine appointments for more than 70 people, says the site was set up in response to people’s frustration with area vaccine shortages.

“That is definitely the role it is filling,” she said. “People who seek appointments have either registered in multiple locations, as they were instructed, and waited impatiently for the appointment that never came, or don’t even have the first clue how to start.”

She added, “This site has literally been a godsend to many people.”

The Facebook group is accessible by invitation only. It features tips, hints and links, ranging from ways to get registered at four Mercy Health System vaccination sites to sign-ups for mass vaccinations in rural towns such as Poplar Bluff or Cuba, hours outside of St. Louis.

“That is so true and so disappointing,” Linkemer said. “People are braving the open road and travelling far and wide to get vaccinated in small-town U.S.A.”

The problems for the site began Feb. 28, when one person posted a comment urging that white people not attempt to book vaccines in predominantly Black areas, since African-Americans have not been vaccinated at the same rates as whites, and showing up to those events could conceivably use up vaccine that could be administered to Blacks. The post was removed for being “political.”

Seven other posts along a similar line were removed the same day, and many of the people posting were banned from the group.

One of them, was Lauren Kohn Davis. 

“There is nothing political about the fact (and it is a fact) that these communities have been hardest hit and the least served by vaccinations,” she wrote.

Another group member, Amber Burge, was removed from the group after posting: “If you wouldn’t go to E. St. Louis to visit, shop, or eat at a restaurant, then you shouldn’t share information regarding their vaccine opportunities or take opportunities from their communities.”

But the St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info group’s policies go well beyond racial equity. I joined the group as part of the research for this story, and posted on March 2 that the lead story on KMOV at 5 p.m. was a report from a mass vaccination site in Cuba, Mo., where reporter Russell Kinsaul found that every car except one among those he interviewed had driven more than an hour from St. Louis to be vaccinated.

The post was removed for being “political.” Group administrator Karen George would say only, “The purpose of the group is to get the community vaccinated. The post does not offer any guidance or suggestions on how to get vaccinated.”

A few hundred of the former members of the group, led by educator, author and activist Heather Fleming, formed their own Facebook page, the Missouri Vaccine Equity Group, offering vaccine information along with information considered too “political” by the St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info site. 

Fleming, founder of In Purpose Educational Services, a consulting group that advises corporations and organizations on issues of equity and racism, started the Missouri Vaccine Equity Group on March 1, the day after people began to be expelled from the St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info group for re-posting Fleming’s observation about white people taking up vaccine appointments at Harris-Stowe State University while Black people, who are being vaccinated at half the rate as whites, still couldn’t access vaccinations. Fleming herself was also banished from the group over her post.

“I realized that railing against the other group wouldn’t help the people being excluded and underserved,” Fleming said. “We quickly began organizing and reaching out to put actions behind our words. We are determined to help make this process more equitable.”

Among that drive for equity is an examination of how St. Louis in general, and Black people in particular, came to be shortchanged in the vaccination process. One example is that there has been a robust discussion in the Missouri Vaccine Equity Group about the Deloitte study in early February  revealing that Missouri’s urban centers had lower vaccination rates because of the state’s allotment of a disproportionate share of vaccines to rural areas.

The article from the Missouri Independent that first revealed the contents of the Deloitte study has been repeatedly removed from the St. Louis and Eastern Missouri COVID-19 Vaccine Info Facebook group. 

After this article appeared, I was also removed by administrators as a member of that group, with no explanation.

Charles Jaco

Charles Jaco is a journalist and author. He has worked for NBC News, CNN, KMOX, KTRS, and Fox 2. He is best known for his coverage of the first Gulf War, and for his "legitimate rape" interview with Senate candidate Todd Akin. He is the winner of three George Foster Peabody Awards, and the author of four books.

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