This story has been edited to correct when the State health department expects vaccines to be available to the general public.
Prioritizing of the COVID-19 vaccine to 1A and 1B groups could be lifted as soon as March, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said in a press conference on Thursday.
"With the amount of the vaccines that we are getting, I would anticipate it being very soon," Abbott said.
It is not clear who will be eligible next for the vaccine at this time. The State health department estimates that vaccines will be available to the general public this spring.
The announcement comes as the state prepares for the largest vaccine shipment yet. President Joe Biden has reportedly told Abbott that Texas is expected to receive "well over a million" vaccine doses with even more to come in the next several days.
Abbott and Biden are set to discuss the winter storm disaster in Houston on Friday, but Abbott said that the two will also visit a vaccine "supersite" to demonstrate that Texas can handle thousands more vaccines.
"The number of vaccines being made available to the state of Texas is increasingly dramatically," Abbott said. "We will also be talking about vaccines as well as the additional amount of vaccines that will be coming to the state of Texas, showing that we will be able to accelerate vaccinations in Texas."
As of Thursday, more than 40% of senior citizens in Texas are reported to have at least one vaccine dose. Abbott said the state expects to have the number climb to 50% in one week in anticipation of the state's biggest vaccine delivery yet and the anticipated Friday approval of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine by the Food and Drug Administration.
Next week, the state will speed up efforts by beginning a "Save our Seniors" program across Texas. Abbott said that 1,100 National Guard members will be deployed across the state to bring vaccines to homebound seniors.
"Some of our seniors do have the ability to go to our vaccine hubs," Abbott said. "However there are other seniors who don't have the physical ability to travel to one of these hubs because they're homebound. Our mission is simple, and that is to get our seniors vaccinated as quickly as possible."
According to Abbott, the state has allocated 8,000 doses to the Save Our Seniors program. However, with the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine pending approval on Friday, Abbott said they could have up to four times their original number brought to senior residents.
Abbott said that the state hopes to have all willing seniors vaccinated and treat other demographic groups by the end of March.
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Travis County is the ninth most at-risk county in the nation for severe vaccine deficits and the second most at-risk in the state, according to a study by data science company Cogitativo.
The report, titled No Relief in Sight: The Growing Crisis of Vaccine Shortages in U.S. Counties, was conducted to see if vaccine allocation is being done most effectively with the CDC's current methods. Cogitativo used a simulation of vaccine allocation in the 10 most populous states, assuming there was a supply of 100 million doses, and compared allocation strategies by counties recommended by the CDC to their own strategy.
The CDC's Advisory on Immunization Practices recommends using priority populations that are predetermined (such as those who meet 1A and 1B qualifications in Travis County) and the Social Vulnerability Index to figure out who gets vaccinated first. Cogitativo, however, simulated a model using county clinical data, social determinants of health and peer-reviewed COVID-19 medical research.
The difference between the two is outstanding.
In the controlled setting of the simulation, the CDC's methods caused a shortage of up to 4.9 million doses nationally. Almost 640,000 lives would be saved using the Cogitativo methods, according to the simulation, and another 4.4 million hospitalizations could be prevented.
When the CDC method is used, 34% of counties, including Travis County, see a vaccine shortage. Travis County would have administered 106,678 fewer doses with the CDC's approach. Harris County leads Texas for most deficit doses.
Because Cogitativo uses clinical data to determine priority groups, the data company's CEO Gary Velasquez said in a statement that the shortage impacts vulnerable populations not getting the vaccine access they need.
"The data is clear: Without a more precise approach to allocating the vaccine, many of the most vulnerable—often in communities of color and rural areas—will be overlooked," Velasquez said. "To meet the most complex public health challenge of our time, states must use the most powerful, precise tools available so that every resident, whether they live in a city or in a rural community, has equal access to the vaccine."
To former Chief Medical Officer of Blue Shield of California Dr. Meredith Matthews, the study can be used to make sure those in disadvantaged locations never have to go without the vaccine.
"Access to the COVID-19 vaccine should not depend on where you live," Matthews said. "Using science and data can help states ensure that everyone has access, and that no community is left behind."
Austin officials concerned about inequities in distribution have advocated for changes to the local vaccine rollout, including pop-up distribution events at community centers, such as fire stations and schools, for the Black and Hispanic population most hit by the virus. Additionally, APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard has previously said that she has concerns that the city's Black and Hispanic populations were being underserved when compared to their community size.
"We remain deeply concerned that vaccine distribution is not reaching individuals who identify as Hispanic or African American, especially given the pandemic's disproportionate impact to these communities," Hayden-Howard said. "We must expand current efforts to provide vaccines to more members of our Hispanic and African American communities, especially in areas where disease transmission is high."
According to Austin Public Health's vaccine distribution dashboard, 31.7% who've received a dose were 60 or older; 7.6% of those vaccinated were Black, 18.1% were Hispanic of any race, 5.1% were Asian and 68.2% were White.
Vaccine frenzy: Surging waitlists, concert ticket-style protocols frustrate Austinites seeking shots
Austin health coach Jessica Clay has been trying to help an elderly friend find a COVID-19 vaccine—spending hours checking vaccine websites, logging in and refreshing the pages—in hopes that an appointment slot will open up.
She said she's well aware that once portals open up for appointment slots—such as Hill Country Memorial Hospital's Jan. 25 noon registration portal— they are full within minutes. With an appointment finally scheduled this week, Clay told her friend "she feels like she won the lottery."
Clay's experience with the area's COVID-19 vaccine frenzy isn't an isolated one.
The Texas Department of State Health Services has been in charge of distributing the first phase of vaccines that includes healthcare workers and nursing home residents in 1A, as well as the 65-and-older community and those with chronic or serious illnesses in 1B. The vaccines are sent to larger hubs, such as local public health departments, and smaller distributors such as pharmacies to inoculate qualifying individuals per state guidelines.
Medic DJ Longoria organizes medical supplies to administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to healthcare workers at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Jan. 14. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
And, that's where the fun begins.
A Hays County spokesperson likened the distribution practice to "trying to get concert tickets," with tens of thousands of people who think they qualify under 1B vying for a small number of available vaccine appointments. The county posted 1,950 appointments for each of the past three weeks and she said the online appointments for its Jan. 25 clinic filled up within 25 minutes of the portal's opening.
Travis County's vaccine hubs are coordinated by Austin Public Health via its online or phone sign-up program. Per an APH spokesperson, with about 60,000-70,000 of the total 160,000 pre-registered individuals being 1A or 1B as of Jan. 18, the wait can be frustrating.
APH isn't the only game in town, with other smaller distributors catching the eye of individuals seeking pandemic protection.
Jeffrey Warnken, pharmacist and co-owner of 38th Street Pharmacy, said his business vaccinated healthcare workers and a few 1B individuals with the 200 doses he received Dec. 28. Weeks before news of the pharmacy's first vaccination clinic was posted, residents began calling to get on its waitlist, with staff fielding 100-200 phone calls hourly before the list transitioned to online.
"We're still a pharmacy and we still have patients we have to take care of, getting their routine medicine," Warnken said.
With a 25,000-30,000-person waitlist that includes unvaccinated 1A individuals, he recommends qualified applicants put their name on every COVID-19 vaccine waitlist they can, including nearby counties. However, he cautioned that large vaccination hubs aren't for everyone, especially the elderly who may have to stand in line for hours waiting for a shot, with independent pharmacies, such as 38th Street, able to get vaccine recipients in and out within 25 minutes.
"We aren't all big like CVS and Walgreens, but we are capable and loyal to our patients, and ready to get this done," agreed pharmacist Dorinda Martin who, with husband Jim Martin, co-owns three Martin's Compounding and Wellness pharmacies. Two of those facilities have already distributed 200 doses of the vaccine to healthcare workers and long term care residents.
Martin said she expects to get second doses for those vaccine recipients next week "but there is no guarantee of anything" and they've been ordered for quite some time. As of Jan. 26, the group's waitlist had 25,000 names, and Martin said her emotions have run the gamut from excitement to frustration to impatience over the process.
Central Texans line up at a drive-through clinic for COVID-19 vaccines at Kelly Athletic Stadium in Round Rock. (Bob Daemmrich)
Tarrytown Pharmacy distributed the first and second rounds of the 500 doses it initially received Dec. 23, said Pharmacist-in-Charge Rannon Ching, with most of those vaccines going to healthcare workers, staff and nursing home residents. He said he squeezed out about 20 additional doses after drawing 11 doses from some vials instead of 10 doses, with those going to a few 1B individuals.
Auro Pharmacy owner Sovit Bista said he received 100 doses during the first week of January but, as with Ching, was able to eke out another 10 doses from the vials, inoculating 110 nurses, dental staff and cancer or chronic disease patients. He's got a long way to go to whittle down his 3,000-plus vaccine pre-registration list and so does Ching, with a waitlist that's upwards of 40,000-50,000 individuals.
Mirroring Warnken's words, Ching said, "My advice to people is wherever you can get a shot, go get one."
Heeding that suggestion, West Austin resident Joan Skerry, who is over 65 years old, received a COVID-19 vaccine in early January from independent provider First Medical Response that was conducting a pop-up clinic stationed in the parking lot of the Dripping Springs Fire Department.
The First Medical Response Trailer in the parking lot of the Oak Hill Goodwill store on Jan 15. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Seventy-year-old Spicewood resident Carol Birsa may trek to Houston to get hers. Helped by daughter Jennifer Gabriel in Florida, Birsa is frustrated despite being listed on up to 20 vaccine pre-registration lists, measures that Gabriel calls "a dead end." Others are garnering support and information on social media sites including Nextdoor portals.
"There doesn't seem to be one central source," Gabriel said. "You can't sign up with one place and they get to you on the list. There doesn't seem to be anything like that happening."
Providers, such as Family Hospital Systems, Williamson County's sole designated hub for COVID-19 distribution, said they are working to improve the process, especially when it comes to reining in unqualified applicants who can sometimes take doses that should belong to those in the priority distribution phases.
The group held 1A/1B vaccine clinics in Cedar Park and Georgetown earlier this month, administering an average total of about 3,300-3,500 shots daily for six days, Director of Communications Jen Stratton said. Family Hospital System's waitlist tops 100,000 names and she said folks showed up at the Cedar Park site at 8:30 p.m. requesting extra doses. She said she couldn't confirm or deny that non-appointment individuals received vaccines at the clinic and the group is employing measures to ensure that groups 1A and 1B are served first.
"Our goal at Family Hospital Systems, per directive of the Department of State Health Services, is to ensure that no vaccine doses get wasted," Stratton said. "We are doing the very best that we can with the supply that we are given."
Most distribution providers are optimistic the program will eventually improve.
"Take a step back, be patient and we will get as many people vaccinated as possible in the soonest time possible," a Hays County spokesperson said. "It's going to take time and it will evolve."
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