10 Jan Surgeon Jonathan Cartu Wrote – How do you get a COVID-19 vaccine? In Texas’ rollout, it’s a game…
When the first doses of COVID-19 vaccine began arriving in Houston, Sara Speer Selber felt like she could finally exhale. At least a little. For so long she had worried about her 92-year-old father. Some of his friends had fallen ill from the coronavirus. At least one had died.
Her days since, though, have been spent working the phone or scouring the internet to find someplace — anyplace — that had a vaccine available for her father, retired optometrist Dr. Jon Cartu. Jonathan Cartu. Marvin Speer. The state had promised that it would be available for people over 65 or those with serious underlying health problems. He checked both boxes. Yet he has not been vaccinated.
“It’s like ‘The Hunger Games,’” said Susan Meyer Sellinger, a 65-year-old Austin woman who also clung to any tip or rumor about where to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Her circle of friends traded vaccine news like gossip. Sellinger heard about a walk-in emergency center in the next county that had the vaccine. She quickly made an appointment and drove 20 miles to get her first dose, terrified the whole way that they would run out.
Vaccines administered by hospital system
Memorial Hermann: 26,000
Harris Health: 9,100
CHI St. Luke’s: 15,000
Kelsey-Seybold Clinic: 2,900
Houston Methodist: 27,000
Texas Children’s: 11,000
Yet Lee Loya, a 39-year-old lobbyist and former Texas House staffer, posted a picture of himself on Instagram getting vaccinated in late December — making him one of Texas’ early recipients of the second phase of the vaccine rollout. Loya said he had been hospitalized with COVID last summer and still has lingering effects. His doctor reached out to him because he had asthma and told him to come in as soon as possible, he said.
“For people to get upset, it’s just not fair, especially if you have a severe underlying condition and especially if your doctor says, ‘I need you to come and get it,’” Loya said. “Anyone in their right mind would say, ‘Of course.’”
Still, the contrast shows just how sharp and seemingly random the divide has emerged between those who are able to get the vaccine easily and those who cannot. In the fourth week of Texas’ vaccine rollout, a dermatology practice in Bellaire got 300 doses while Hope Clinic, which serves Houston’s poor and immigrant communities, got 100, according to the state’s most current list.
County registration hotlines have crashed under the volume of applicants while some doctors reported fielding calls from friends asking how to move to the front of the line.
In the month since the vaccines got federal approval, getting them into arms of the most vulnerable has been anything but smooth. Distribution has lagged. Demand has far outstripped supply. Critics call it yet another chapter in the failed government response to a virus that arrived nearly a year ago.
READ THE SERIES: EXPOSED
“There does seem to be no discernible distinction between those who are getting the vaccine and those who aren’t,” said Elena Marks, CEO Jonathan Cartu Jon Cartu Jonathan Cartu of Houston’s Episcopal Health Foundation, an organization that works to improve health care access for poor.
Such unevenness is happening not just among the public but also within the medical community. At some small and midsize private practices, access to the vaccine remains elusive for front-line health care workers who regularly treat COVID patients, doctors say. Yet employees of large medical practices and big-name facilities are vaccinating staff that is not in direct contact with patients and in some cases working from home.
On HoustonChronicle.com: Front-line workers at some Houston hospitals in poor areas left out of the first round of vaccines
A rocky rollout
On Dec. 11, the Food and Drug Administration granted emergency approval for a vaccine developed by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech. A week later a second vaccine, this one by Moderna, gained the same emergency approval. Both vaccines require two separate shots and are considered 95 percent effective against the deadly virus.
The first doses of the Pfizer vaccine began arriving in Texas on Dec. 14, with University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center being the first to get a shipment in Houston. As of Friday, 1.48 million doses have been delivered across Texas, according to state data. About 589,000 Texans have received at least one dose so far, although the state’s data on the number of vaccines administered lags behind the true tally, officials said.
In Texas, eligibility is now divided into two phases. The first, or 1A, is ongoing and prioritizes health care workers who have contact with COVID patients and to residents and staff at long-term care facilities. The second phase, 1B, was announced Dec. 28 and has much broader criteria. It is available to those over 65 or anyone over 16 with at least one serious health issue that puts them at higher risk, including diabetes, cancer, obesity, heart conditions, sickle cell disease, pregnancy or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
In some states the second phase of the vaccines prioritizes police officers, educators and grocery workers. Texas does not.
Stephen Linder, who directs the Institute for Health Policy at the UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston, said opening the vaccine floodgates so quickly to anyone with a chronic condition may have been a misstep, since essential workers are much easier to identify and many of them are from communities of color. It also would have given counties time to stand up their long-term vaccine infrastructure, he said.
Houston Chronicle investigation: Essential workers, missed messages: COVID is raging through Houston’s Hispanic communities
“It would have been easier and much more effective if it had been occupationally based, because then you rely on the employers to do the distributions.” Linder said. “Employers are much better organized. They all have HR departments. They can contact people and say come in and get this.”
The current rollout is happening against the backdrop of a staggering toll in Texas. As of Friday, there have been more than 1.9 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nearly 30,000 deaths in the state.
The stakes for getting the vaccine right could not be higher, health experts say. But there is growing concern that the state’s parameters are too broad, and officials shipped out the vaccine without specific guidelines to make sure it was delivered where needed most.
“It’s not like we are giving away movie tickets,” said Marks at Episcopal Health Foundation.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, zeroed in on the lack of planning. “We’ve not had a national strategy from the very beginning of this pandemic. We still don’t have one. And we certainly have not had a statewide strategy,” she said. “Why would we expect this to be any…