Starting Monday all Texans 16 years old and over will be eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. But many questions remain about how available those vaccines will be, whether the sign-up process will include everyone and how those who need the vaccine most will still get priority.
Dr. Jennifer Shuford is chief state epidemiologist and a member of Texas’ COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. She told Texas Standard that some vaccine providers have given shots to most of those who qualify, and have had to slow down vaccinations because priorities for the next round or recipients haven’t previously been established.
She acknowledges that other providers continue to vaccinate high-priority populations, including older people, those with underlying medical conditions and educators. But she says it’s important to expand vaccine availability broadly.
“I don’t want to get too dramatic on you, but Texas is in a race against time here,” Shuford said. “We know that there are those imitated forms of the virus – the variants – that are increasing in prevalence across the nation, and definitely here in Texas as well. And these variants are more transmissible, and they can cause more severe disease.”
Shuford says Texas is receiving a “steady” supply of vaccines from the federal government, and that supply will increase over the coming months.
“Probably about a million first doses per week,” she said.
Shuford is also hopeful that new vaccines will soon gain emergency Food and Drug Adminisration approval and become available in Texas.
To address inequities in vaccine distribution, Shuford says the state’s Department of Health Services, or DSHS, has increased allocation to vaccine providers who serve communities with high numbers of vulnerable Texans.
Shuford says the state is rolling out a new vaccine scheduler at the beginning of April, which local health departments can use to provide assistance to individuals looking for a shot. DSHS will also launch a call center for individuals who can’t, or don’t wish to, go online.
People who want to receive a vaccine should look to local providers to sign up, she says.
“What we hope to do with this increasing amount of vaccine is get it into the hands of pharmacies and physicians’ offices and places where community members know that they always go to get their vaccines, and there’s already processes in place to get on a schedule and get those vaccines,” she said.
Some experts wonder whether the state will be able to effectively manage the instant increase in vaccine demand and be able to provide sufficient support to local health departments.
Vivian Ho is the Baker Institute chair in health economics, and director of the Center for Health and Biosciences at Rice University. She says she was initially wary of the state’s plan to offer vaccines to all adults. But she says many people have already received vaccinations who are not members of the current high-priority groups.
“So, in a sense, the state is actually just formalizing something that has been going on already,” Ho Said.
Ho says inequity in vaccine distribution continues to be a problem, especially for people without transportation or who are uninsured.
“What we need to do now is put more resources and get much more creative in terms of delivering vaccines where these people live,” Ho said.
She suggests doing vaccine drives at houses of worship, and sending mobile vaccine teams to high-risk workplaces.
Ho says the state should give more guidance to local health departments rather than relying on them to manage distribution.
“[Under] the Biden plan, there’s more money out there for more vaccination drives,” she said, referring to provisions in the new federal COVID-19 bill, signed into law by President Biden.
Local efforts to encourage vaccination are important, too, including efforts led by churches and other community groups. Ho says people who have been hesitant to get a vaccine are more likely to do so once people they know have gotten one.
“And also, if my friends are vaccinated, they’re going to be more hesitant about seeing me if I’m not vaccinated,” Ho said.