While the fight against COVID-19 in Hays County has taken a step forward in the arrival and distribution of vaccines to prioritized groups, some argue the current state of inoculation in the county leaves much to be desired.
Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra announced on Jan. 18 via a media press conference that the state of Texas has categorized the county as a COVID-19 vaccine hub as of Jan. 16.
The county now anticipates the arrival of about 1,900 vaccines from the state this week. However, Becerra says the county does not know if and when the county will receive additional doses.
Once the vaccines arrive, Becerra says the county will open up a website portal where those eligible for vaccinations may sign up.
"I can't bring our community's hopes up until [the vaccines] are in my possession," Becerra says in the press conference. "Unless and until they are in possession, we will not turn on the registration portal."
During a Jan. 15 Facebook Live, Becerra informed the community the county received 300 doses of the vaccine. Beccera says in the press conference those vaccines have since been distributed to individuals in Tier 1A which includes health care workers, long-term care staff working with vulnerable residents, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities.
Those vaccines have also been distributed to Tier 1B which includes staff in outpatient care settings who interact with symptomatic patients, direct care staff in freestanding emergency medical care facilities, community pharmacy staff, public health and emergency response staff working in the administration of COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, last responders and school nurses.
Prior to the initial shipment, vaccines were only being sent to private organizations that requested them.
Becerra communicated his concerns over the lack of vaccines available to local public health departments in a letter to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Jan. 4. Becerra says there is no reason for the vaccine to arrive in private hands before public ones.
The uncertainty surrounding the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is not limited to elected officials. It has also spread to everyday residents of San Marcos like 22-year-old Anna Sweeney, who graduated in December with a degree in political science and is immunocompromised.
Sweeney wants more publicly available information and efforts to increase awareness from Texas State and the local government about the benefits of mass inoculation and how it will pan out in the county.
“I think it would help if Texas State [encouraged] vaccination and provided students with resources on how to get vaccinated once we get those resources,” Sweeney says.
Becerra also voices concern over the potential added costs to the average person due to the momentary private monopoly of vaccines in the county.
“Here I am sitting as a director of emergency management, and I don't know if a private practice is going to charge an administration fee for the vaccination that is free or demand a doctor's visit, and you know those aren't cheap,” Becerra says.
Several H-E-B's throughout the county have received shipments of the Moderna vaccine. Tamra Jones, H-E-B's public affairs manager, says the supermarket’s pharmacies will not require a doctor's visit or payment before receiving a vaccine.
“The federal government is making the vaccine free for everyone [who] would like one,” Jones says.
Jones says H-E-Bs in Hays County have already exhausted their supply of Moderna vaccines for Phase 1A, which included healthcare personnel and long-term care facility residents, but they do have the necessary doses for the second round of vaccinations required for the already vaccinated group. According to Jones, the majority of H-E-B pharmacies received 100 doses.
“The vaccines are trickling into everyone's hands, eligible hands, throughout the state, in different ways,” Jones says. “H-E-B did get a dose, a big order that second week, which was the week [of, I believe] December 23 [for Phase 1A].”
Jones says H-E-B is currently focused on distributing the Moderna vaccine above others, as it was provided by the state of Texas. Jones says H-E-B's supply chain is prepared to deliver more vaccines when they become available but did not specify a limit on the capacity of distribution.
Jones says H-E-B employees will not receive priority over other individuals of the same phase of inoculations and will have to go through the same process as non-employees.
“No, we’re customers,” Jones says, “Employees are customers too.”
When a new batch of doses arrives and a person is eligible, Jones says customers must schedule an appointment online through a “scheduler” on a “first come, first serve” basis with no waitlist or overscheduling.
Becerra’s concern for private enterprises gatekeeping vaccines and the damage it could cause to already underserved communities in Hays County, such as people without housing and those unable to work due to their health, helped determine the placement of future vaccination stations in the county.
“Our goal is to set ourselves up in spaces where the population is most vulnerable and has the lowest access,” Becerra says.
According to Becerra, the county will take whatever vaccines are given to them and distribute them efficiently regardless of the number of doses, as they would likely be given much fewer vaccines than they have the capacity to process.
Sweeney hopes mass inoculation is pushed by San Marcos and the county when it is viable but is against required vaccinations for the general public.
“I don't think it should be mandated, but like I said, I do think it should be strongly encouraged, and I do think the city and campus [should] send out emails, either providing information or encouraging people to get it,” Sweeney says.
Becerra emphasizes he will not mandate vaccinations in Hays County but says he highly recommends those who can get vaccinated to do so when they receive the chance.
“My hope and goal is to vaccinate everyone that wants one, but most importantly, make sure you understand that I will not mandate vaccinations,” Becerra says. “That's just ridiculous. Some people [are floating] that idea, and that's absolutely never going to happen.”
Becerra and other county officials will provide COVID-19 updates every Friday at 1 p.m. via Facebook Live.