A lot of Texas are frustrated, not only about the short supply of COVID-19 vaccines but the process used to register for those vaccines.
The Texas Standard turned to Dr. Ryan Van Ramshorst for answers. He’s a San Antonio pediatrician and the chief medical director for the Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program. He’s also one of 17 members of the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel which sets guidelines for the vaccine rollout for the Texas Department of State Health Services.
We asked Dr. Van Ramshorst about how the vaccine rollout works and what the Department of State Health Services, or DSHS is doing to smooth out the process now used by 358 vaccine providers in the state.
First, Texas partners with the federal government to get access to the national vaccine supply. However, Dr. Van Ramshorst said, vaccines go directly to the 358 providers in Texas that have been approved by DSHS. The supply sent to each state is determined by the federal government based on each state’s population.
“The federal government ships those vaccines directly to the providers,” he explained. “Those vaccines are shipped directly to the providers that will be giving them to Texans.”
Of the 358 providers in Texas, 85 are known as hub providers, ones that serve larger communities.
Dr. Van Ramsorst’s role as a member of the vaccination allocation panel is to develop guidelines for the state, and to help the state and providers determine how to get those shots into the arms of those now in the 1B category.
That 1B category now includes anyone 65 and older, or 16 and older with a specific health condition. In Texas, 1B includes approximately 11 million people. That’s the same as the entire populations of Arizona and Oklahoma, combined.
With so many people to get vaccinated right now, the panel, he said, is quite aware that there’s a lot of frustration across the state about the registration process.
“We know that there are some areas that are performing very highly and have found ways to keep things very simplified and orderly,” he said. “And we know that there’s other providers that are facing challenges. And so I know that the Department of State Health Services is actively outreaching to those providers to help them level up their plans and make sure they’re there getting as many vaccines to Texans as they can.”
Although the Centers for Disease Control recommended 1B as a category that included those 75 and older, Texas and other states widened that category. Why?
“The expert vaccine allocation panel, of course, looked at guidance from our federal partners, but also took into consideration the feedback that we were getting from Texans,” Dr. Van Ramshorst said.
Right now about 30 percent of the nearly 4 million Texans 65 and older have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Another criticism of the registration process is that while COVID-19 has impacted Texans of color more, they have had less access to the vaccine.
“The panel is very aware of this. I really think that this issue is one where we need to support our local communities to partner with faith-based organizations, community-based organizations, to make sure that we are reaching out to those underserved communities, rural communities, communities of color and otherwise, to make sure that they’re able to get those vaccines as well,” Dr. Van Ramshorst said.
There are also complaints that second doses of the vaccine are especially hard to schedule. But Dr. Van Ramshorst said that most needing a second dose are able to get one.
“The vast majority of people have gotten their second doses on time,” he said. “But we have heard concerns from individuals who are worried, just like you stated, and we continue to work specifically one on one with those providers to make sure that we’re minimizing that from happening as much as possible.”
Until there is more vaccine available, there will continue to be frustrations in the vaccination process, Dr. Van Ramshorst conceded.
“I think being patient is really important right now. This is still a very scarce resource and we’re all looking to the coming months where there will hopefully be much more vaccine to go around.”
He noted that vaccine providers are now adding ways for older Texans to get a vaccination appointment if they do not have access to the internet.
“We know that many of the websites are relying on online registration because there’s some advantages with that. But we know that there are certain populations that don’t have a computer, they don’t have a smart device. Maybe it’s an individual with intellectual or developmental disabilities that has difficulty accessing something online. And so we are working and strategizing about how to specifically reach out to those populations,” he said.