New COVID Vaccine Strategies for Texas as We're "Right in the Middle of the Storm"

More than 3,850 shots of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine were handed out Saturday at Minute Maid Park.
More than 3,850 shots of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine were handed out Saturday at Minute Maid Park. Photo by Margaret Downing
While being justifiably proud that the city pumped 3,852 (possibly record-breaking) doses of the Moderna vaccine into people's arms at Minute Maid Park Saturday, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wasn't nearly as happy about the other coronavirus numbers he was reporting at his Monday afternoon press conference. 

"We are right in the middle of the storm," he said, quoting a positivity rate of 17.4 percent, another 1,460 new cases reported and three more deaths in the city of Houston thanks to the pandemic. Dr. David Persse, chief medical officer for the city, said local hospitals are already at surge level and in some cases sending patients home with oxygen tanks.

Depending on the amount of vaccine the city is given and the availability of volunteers, city personnel and facilities like Minute Maid Park, more mega events may be scheduled in the future in both the north and south parts of the city, both Turner and Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams said. So far the city has received a total of 22,147 doses, and appointments are booked for coming days at the city's other vaccination sites.

In his own press conference earlier in the day, Gov. Greg Abbott said the state was adopting a new strategy to more effectively deal with the demand for the vaccine. He announced this on the day that Texas became the second state to pass the tragic milestone of more than 30,000 coronavirus deaths.

Abbott, speaking from an Arlington vaccination site, said that going forward, the state will prioritize sending the majority of vaccine doses it receives from the federal government to what he called “28 large-scale hub vaccination centers” across the state of Texas.

He was able to provide some statistics about how many doses have been distributed within Texas (2,067,900 doses as of Sunday, with 877,815 Texans having gotten shots), but didn’t provide any information about anything the state is doing to get Texans vaccinated more quickly other than the dose shipment priority changes he mentioned.

“We have the structure to vaccinate Texans very swiftly,” Abbott claimed. “This structure that we now have created can be expanded and will be expanded very swiftly across the state. The only limitation that we now face is the limitation of supply.”

But this “structure” that Abbott touted isn’t coming from the state itself; Texan vaccine providers have had to figure out on their own how best to get doses out into the public, and it doesn’t look like the state health department is offering any sort of guidance on how best to handle the on-the ground logistical nightmare of actually getting doses into patients. That’s led to countless stories of frustrated Texans enduring multi-hour waits, vaccine signup links with no security measures to prevent un-qualifying Texans from registering and appointment call centers that crumble under the pressure of thousands upon thousands of calls when new slots open up.

In the case of this past Saturday at Minute Maid, it took an estimated 15-30 minutes for all the slots to be filled when the announcement was made that there were an additional 1,000 openings for the day. Once there, by all accounts, things ran as smoothly as could be expected with almost every vaccine recipient feeling like their lottery ticket had come in. Support personnel were helpful, pleasant and able to make the wait time tolerable. In addition to all the city employees such as EMTs from the Houston Fire Department and city health department workers, volunteers from the Astros and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo guided people along the way while Houston police provided security.
click to enlarge Houston area residents lined up Saturday outside Minute Maid Park for their coronavirus vaccine appointments. - PHOTO BY MARGARET DOWNING
Houston area residents lined up Saturday outside Minute Maid Park for their coronavirus vaccine appointments.
Photo by Margaret Downing
While Abbott referenced these specific “hub” locations, the Department of State Health Services instead used the term “hub providers” in a Sunday announcement highlighting 28 healthcare organizations across Texas that will be getting the bulk of additional vaccine doses going forward.

For Harris County, the DSHS lists three hub providers: the Houston Health Department, Harris County Public Health, and the Houston Methodist Hospital System.

“A Texan is capable and able to receive a vaccine in any county in the state of Texas,” Abbott said. He then pointed to how Arlington’s public health officials have told health authorities in neighboring rural counties to refer local residents to the Arlington hub location since it has the capacity to deliver thousands of vaccines a day as a model that other parts of the state should emulate. That said, smaller providers in rural communities will still receive some doses going forward, Abbott said.

Abbott tried to tamp down criticism of the lack of state assistance in setting up vaccine distributions by claiming that Texas has done an okay job of getting doses to providers on the ground considering that vaccines have only been being distributed for about three-and-a-half weeks.

Abbott was also asked about the violent mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters that stormed the U.S. Capitol last Wednesday. In his first public statement on the Capitol takeover that led to five deaths, Abbott chose not to criticize Trump directly, nor the Texan lawmakers like Sen. Ted Cruz who for weeks helped fan the flames of conspiracy theories attempting to convince Trump’s base that the presidential election had been stolen from him.

“With regard to the violence, violence, always, obviously, is unacceptable. But the people responsible for the violence are the people who did it, and they’re the ones who should be punished for it,” Abbott said.

He then indirectly criticized Twitter for banning Trump this weekend, and accused social media companies of being hypocritical for choosing to “cancel conservative speech” while still enjoying legal protections against liability for what users say on those platforms. “They cannot have it both ways,” Abbott said.

Abbott also referred to attempts to have Trump removed from office before President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20 as counterproductive “political infighting,” and said that members of Congress should stay focused on getting the federal government to get vaccines into the public faster.

“They should be working every minute of every day coming up with strategies that will create more vaccines for Texans and for Americans,” Abbott said.

Speaking of strategies: at the city press conference residents were once again urged to wear masks and practice social distancing. Turner said they have no idea when they are going to get their next shipment of vaccine so continuing preventative measures are crucial. 
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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
Contact: Margaret Downing
Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards