AUSTIN (KXAN) — Nearly half of Texans ages 65 and older still wait for the vaccine, as the state plans to expand access to younger people next week.
State data from Thursday showed 48% of Texans ages 65 and up were still waiting for their first shot. Only 30% of this age group had been fully vaccinated.
Kathleen Cain lives in Central Texas with her 95-year-old mother. She herself qualifies under Phase 1B, but she said she had struggled to even book her mother an appointment. When she heard more Texans would be joining the waitlist under the newly released Phase 1C, she was “flabbergasted.”
Cain asked, “How can you bypass all the folks that are still waiting in line?”
In a news conference on Thursday, KXAN investigators asked what pushed vaccine allocation experts to move to the next phase. The Department of State Health Services said they estimate 30% of people 65 and older to be hesitant about getting the vaccine.
“When we looked at our data for 65 and up: how much had been administered and how many counties had seen significant progress over the last couple of weeks,” associate commissioner Imelda Garcia explained, “that really helped signal to the expert panel that it was time to go. Ultimately, we don’t want to slow down.”
Which states are already vaccinating younger populations?
Texas wasn’t the first state to announce expanded eligibility for people under the age of 65.
In South Carolina, people ages 55 and up are eligible. In Utah, Ohio, Indiana, Mississippi and West Virginia, it’s offered to people ages 50 and up. Alaska became the first state to open up access for everyone ages 16 and older.
Several other states, such as Georgia, Idaho, Oregon and Michigan, plan to expand access to age groups younger than 65 soon — some on Monday with Texas, others by the end of the month.
Here’s a look at how Texas compares to other states, as of March 11:
Texas immunization expert Dr. Peter Hotez said he agreed Texans should be prioritized by age and medical risk, but he noted the 65-year-old cut off for Phase 1B seemed “artificial.” He said it was not necessarily inclusive of the toll the virus has taken on even younger minority communities.
“Clearly the group at greatest risk are older individuals,” he said. “Yet we know from the Centers for Disease Control data that among African-American and Hispanic minority groups, we’re looking at 35% of the deaths under the age of 65.”
Plus, he said the less barriers to the vaccine exist, the better we set up our communities to stand up against new variants of the virus.
“So, comparing this to the eye of a hurricane: you know you’re in the eye you think everything looks good and then the next big wave is about to hit.”
Which Texas counties have the highest vaccination rates?
Pflugerville residents Russell and LeeAnn Pothast are both nearly 70 years old. They’ve been checking the website of every pharmacy they can, but haven’t been able to get a single appointment.
“Every time you go look somewhere, it says ‘fully booked,’ unless you want to go drive to West Texas somewhere — out to Midland or way up to Lubbock,” he said. “It’s been frustrating.”
KXAN investigators analyzed state vaccination data to see which Texas counties were operating at the highest vaccination rate — comparing the total number of people fully vaccinated to the county’s total population of people ages 16 and up.
There were nearly 30 counties who had vaccinated more than 20% of this 16+ population, but most of these counties were smaller in size. Randall County, which encompasses part of Amarillo, has topped the list for weeks.
Director of Amarillo Public Health Department Casie Stoughton said they opted against using online registration systems and appointment times. Instead, people are screened for eligibility verbally when they arrive at the city’s Civic Center distribution site.
“We wanted to get shots in arms very quickly, and so we went with a ‘pen and paper’ model and a walk-in clinic,” she said. “We knew we were going to be serving patients who were 65 and older, so we didn’t want there to be any barriers or any challenges to them being vaccinated.”
Stoughton noted their line is often long “first-thing” in the morning, but she said they used several tools to keep the line moving and keep people safe at the site.
“Our exhibit hall has around 288 chairs for people to rest and fill out paper work. We have a fast track area where we are able to serve people with mobility issues or respiratory issues,” she said.
Earlier this year, county judge Nancy Tanner in Potter County — which encompasses another part of Amarillo — told KXAN the city wasn’t turning away anyone who showed up, even if they were not eligible in the 1B phase. She believes the simplified process was the key to the area’s success.
However, Stoughton said that wasn’t the case. She ensured they were screening for eligibility at the Civic Center site and that people are required to fill out one form — “front-and-back” — upon arrival. Stoughton said it takes their staff around a day to enter that data into the state’s vaccinate database.
Before Texas had expanded access to teachers and Phase 1C adults, Dr. Hotez was recommending the state do just that. He said prioritizing high-risk individuals was key, but sacrificing a simple distribution process was not an option — even calling the CDC’s recommended rollout phases “fussy.”
“When you try to impose all of these very prescriptive guidelines, we know we can’t operationalize them. So, when you try to do that, what happens is it actually becomes a barrier to access. People are so afraid of doing something that’s not quite within the guidelines.”
Among Texas’ largest cities, with 1 million people ages 16 and up, Bexar County has reached the most people ages 16 and up. Travis County appears to be moving at the slowest rate per capita.
Travis County leaders have said the rate at which vaccines are distributed depends on the rate at which they are allocated to providers in our area. In a joint briefing with County Commissioners, Austin City Council and Austin Public Health on Tuesday, County Judge Andy Brown emphasized the importance of scaling-up mass distribution sites, such as the Circuit of the Americas.
“I think our duty is to make sure we have full capacity in the entire county: East, West, North and South, so that when we get these mass quantities, we are making them available to people — no matter where they live, no matter what their income is, no matter what their ability is to drive somewhere.”
- Explore more COVID-19 vaccination data here
For Cain’s mother, who has mobility and other health issues, the vaccine site options in Central Texas seem daunting — even if she is able to obtain an appointment soon.
“I don’t think it should be these kind of cattle calls for people that are that old and that feeble,” Cain said, getting emotional. “I don’t want to cry here, but I don’t want her sitting in her own waste sitting in a drive-through for hours.”
Do you want to talk about your experience trying to get a vaccine? Have concerns or questions you want to ask about the Texas vaccine rollout? Email investigator Avery Travis at firstname.lastname@example.org.