Stamping out COVID-19

More education, better transportation among solutions counties adopting to increase distribution of vaccines

By Melissa Porch

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Despite counties across Texas stepping up to help constituents get vaccinated, the most vulnerable still face additional hurdles when trying to get immunized. 

The challenges residents face to getting vaccinated include finding reliable transportation to vaccination sites, getting access to sufficient doses and learning to trust in the vaccines. County officials are tackling the hurdles by placing vaccination hubs in vulnerable communities, encouraging people to wait their turn and launching education campaigns to highlight the safety of the vaccines.

“We’ve made it a focal point to communicate,” said Hidalgo County Precinct 4 Commissioner Ellie Torres. “We've been very intentional in targeting our vulnerable populations. We are going to adult day cares, senior living, mobile home parks.”

The state has administered 16 million doses of the vaccine, and 7 million people are fully vaccinated, according to April 22 data. Among Texas' older adults, 74% have received at least one dose and about 60% are fully vaccinated, according to the Texas Department of State health Services (DSHS), which is overseeing the rollout of the vaccine.  

About 70% of Texans 16 years old and older were not yet fully vaccinated, as of April 22. The department opened up vaccinations to all 16 years old or older on March 29. 

“DSHS wants every Texan to get vaccinated. Our goal is to get shots in arms quickly because we want to continue to slow the spread of the virus and don’t want the new variants to take hold,” Lara Anton, spokesperson for DSHS, told County magazine.

As of April 22, DSHS had allocated vaccine doses to providers in 237 counties. Not all counties have providers because Texas’ Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel tries to ensure that vaccine allocations to counties are in proportion to each county’s percentage of the state’s population. In areas where there isn’t a local health department, the DSHS regional offices provide services, including infectious disease case investigations and organizing mobile vaccination clinics. 

Some counties, including Bastrop, are having problems maintaining the manpower to administer the vaccine to a wider population. Bastrop County commissioners in April approved hiring an outside firm to help vaccinate residents.

Anton said DSHS regional offices have been working closely with local elected leadership in counties to ensure that the people in the vaccine priority groups get vaccinated. For example, the regional offices have worked directly with long-term care facilities in their communities to vaccinate residents. The regional offices also hold vaccine clinics in the communities they cover, particularly in those that do not have enrolled vaccine providers.

As the supply of vaccine increases, regional offices will schedule more vaccine clinics, Anton said. 

Hidalgo County: Encouraging patience

About 36% of Hidalgo County's eligible population has been vaccinated, according to DSHS. The 860,000-resident county had been hit particularly hard by the pandemic after 55,000 people became infected, and 2,400 have died. 

“It was like going to war and coming home from battle and having PTSD," said Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County health and human services chief administrative officer, about his staff’s response to COVID-19. “It affects our families. It affects all of us. I see my team is tired and worn out and frustrated, but they keep on going. And I'm proud of them.”

The county has been working hard to stamp out COVID-19. Torres said they’ve partnered with the chambers of commerce in Hidalgo County to find where the elderly in their community live and get COVID-19 vaccines to them. Hidalgo County Precinct 2 Commissioner Eddie Cantu said that when vaccines were first available, they were in such high demand that elderly residents were sleeping in their cars trying to make sure they would be in line to receive a vaccination. 

“At that point, we really focused on making it more efficient to register to get a vaccine,” Cantu said. “We reached out to adult day cares and communities that had seniors, and we were able to do closed pods, where you don’t register in person, you can register your community. It eliminated the long lines of cars.”

In Hidalgo County, county officials say the other challenge with the COVID-19 vaccine is the availability of the vaccine. Each of the four precincts has been allotted around 1,000 doses a week.

“One thousand vaccines isn’t a large number of vaccines for all in the community who want it right now,” Torres said. “Recall at the beginning of the pandemic when COVID-19 testing wasn’t available to everyone, but now you can find kiosks everywhere. We are asking the public to be patient, be a hero and wait your turn. Let the people who need it most get their vaccines first.”

Cantu said patience is needed even more since the vaccine is now open to all Texans ages 16 and older. With elderly in the community still needing to be vaccinated, the county now must divvy up the 1,000-vaccines-a-week allotment among more people.

As of April 21, about 500,000 adults in Hidalgo County are not yet fully vaccinated.

“One of our biggest challenges is patience. We have a very high demand, which is great, but trying to get people to understand we have lots of demand but limited supply,” Cantu said. “The state added to our list without giving us more vaccines. We are really working to get to the most vulnerable.”

Harris County: Breaking down barriers

In Harris County, officials say the difficulty of getting vaccines to underserved communities comes from a series of complex issues, including the need to encourage eligible residents to get vaccinated. 

“We really needed to do a job of educating our African American and Hispanic communities especially,” said Alan Rosen, Harris County Precinct 1 constable. “They need to know about the efficacy of the shot, how it was created, science behind it, safety behind it. Getting them to take the shot will save lives.”

Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said his precinct struggles with poverty  and emphasizes the importance of breaking down barriers to encourage people to get vaccinated. Precinct staff members have encouraged skeptics to watch others receive the shot. Those skeptics have then gone on to receive a vaccination, Garcia said. 

“Underserved communities need word of mouth. We are working on creating more trusted ambassadors who have received the shot,” Garcia said. 

Rosen and Garcia said some residents who would like the vaccine don’t have the means to travel to a clinic or don’t have the technology to sign up online.

An example of this is when Garcia found a way to bring COVID-19 testing to the community through use of smart pods, which are mobile health care units that can be deployed to areas of the community.

“It’s a huge struggle, but everyone needs to do a better job of bringing the shot to the community impacted,” Rosen continued. “Some don’t have transportation; some don’t have technology. We need to work those neighborhoods that need it but can’t get it.”

Garcia emphasized that a greater partnership with state officials would go a long way to help reduce some of the struggles and ramp up vaccinations. According to March 21 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Texas ranks 46th in the country, with just 22% of residents receiving at least one COVID-19 vaccination and 11% of the population fully vaccinated.

“I applaud all of the county officials across Texas because we are all in this together. We know our constituencies,” Garcia said. “I know that if we could get more assistance from the state and work more closely with federal government, we can end this pandemic sooner rather than later.”