State of Texas: Questions about vaccine safety as state prepares for rollout

State of Texas

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — On Wednesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced Texas is expected to receive its first allotment of more than 1.4 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in less than two weeks.

The initial round of shipments includes doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, under the assumption that both would earn federal approval, the governor’s spokesperson said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is scheduled to talk about the emergency approval of COVID-19 vaccines next week, with the first discussions starting Dec. 10.

More than 4,000 medical providers have signed up with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to administer COVID-19 vaccines once an immunization receives approval.

According to DSHS, more than 4,100 healthcare providers in more than 225 Texas counties enrolled with the state as a COVID-19 vaccine provider, and an additional 2,500 Texas locations of national pharmacy chains enrolled directly with the federal government.

“Providers include medical practices, pharmacies, hospitals, long-term care facilities, health centers, health departments, correctional facilities and others,” DSHS spokesperson Lara Anton said.

According to DSHS, the first doses will be sent to larger healthcare facilities that can vaccinate the most healthcare workers in the shortest amount of time. Doses will go to other providers based on the state’s vaccine distribution guidelines.

“The State of Texas is already prepared for the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine, and will swiftly distribute these vaccines to Texans who voluntarily choose to be immunized,” said Abbott in a press release. “As we await the first shipment of these vaccines, we will work with communities to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.”

That’s welcome news to nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state of Texas.

“This can be a very deadly virus for older individuals, especially those in nursing homes,” said Dr. David Lakey, a voting member on the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.

He said the 1.4 million doses allotted to Texas are based on the population and the severity of the outbreak in the state. He estimates it to be about 10% of the country’s initial rollout. Because it will go quickly, Lakey said people who are being offered first priority should take advantage of it.

“I will have no reluctance at all telling my mom and dad, when it’s their turn, that they need to get immunized. When its my turn, I will get immunized,” Lakey said.

Other people are wary about having their parents first in line for the vaccine. Despite not seeing her 85-year-old mother in person for several months, Karla Balluch said she is nervous the vaccine candidates have not been tested on enough people.

“I feel like every drug and every vaccine has to be tested over a number of years, and they are doing this warp speed thing. In my opinion, they are doing it a little too fast,” Balluch said.

Lakey says the data shows the vaccine is very safe and effective over a large trial population. Recipients may experience minor after effects like headaches and soreness, but Lakey said there have been no severe illnesses reported.

“Obviously, everyone is concerned about any new technology, any new virus vaccine that may come out. I would have people concentrate on the data,” Lakey said. “All the data that I have seen thus far looks like this vaccine is both very safe and effective.”

Tourist hot spots become virus hot spots

Out in West Texas, tourism destinations are becoming COVID-19 infection hotspots.

The counties surrounding Big Bend National Park have nearly 700 active cases, which may not sound significant, until you look at the population.

Per capita, the rate of active cases in Brewster and Presidio Counties are comparable to the COVID-19 active case rate in El Paso, the worst hot spot in the state right now.

Locals are pointing to an influx in tourists in recent weeks, which business owners like Kate Calder have noticed.

“People are sick of staying in their house. So they’re like, ‘Oh, there’s a national park, you know, five hours away. So let’s head out to get some fresh air,’ but they have to remember that that does cause a strain on all the small local towns that are out here,” Calder said.

She said she’s had many candid conversations with recent tourists shopping at her store, Communitie, who had no idea how strained the region already is.

“People do not realize we do not have medical facilities that big metropolitan cities have to take on this,” Calder explained. “A lot of people that visit the Marfa area or the Big Bend region don’t realize that we do have a small Medical Center in Alpine, Texas, which is 30 minutes away from Marfa…. and it doesn’t really have the capabilities to take care of any severe COVID patients.”

The hospitals in the same trauma service area as the Big Bend region are in Midland-Odessa, about a three-hour drive from Marfa. There, hospitals have been near or at capacity for weeks.

“Over the last two or three weeks, we have not been able to take a whole lot of patients from outlying areas, because we’ve been so full,” Dr. Rohith Saravanan, Chief Medical Officer at the Odessa Regional Medical Center, explained.

The Chief Nursing Officer at the neighboring Medical Health Center System said they’re facing the same issue.

“We’ve normally take anything and everything. And we’ve been put in a situation where now we have to tell them, ‘I need you to hang on to your patients a little bit longer,’ than what we would have eight months ago. So it’s very difficult to not be able to help them as much as we were helping them,” CNO Christin Timmons explained.

But the small communities in the Big Bend region also depend on tourism.

“It’s the double-edged sword,” Calder said, “Other, you know, business owners in town that we’re all trying to just hang on, and do our business, if we so feel comfortable in the safest possible way.”

Jeanine Bishop, owner of the Humane Society’s thrift store in nearby Alpine, said she’s also noticed the increase.

“On Tuesday, Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we doubled our typical sales in the store those two days, we talked to those people, they were almost 100% from out of town visiting this area,” Bishop said.

Bishop’s nonprofit has felt that double-edged sword, directly.

“I’ve had to layoff my staff. So now just my assistant and I running our thrift store, which puts us out there facing the public,” Bishop explained.

She said she’s also seen some more pushback against these tourists due to the surge. Some, on social media, even calling them ‘tourons,’ a combination of tourists and morons.

“We even have said that before the pandemic, it’s the careless tourists that come out here, you know, during wildfire season and, and want to camp fire, you know,” she explained.

Calder has noticed signs around Marfa as well.

“I saw a poster when I was walking my dog the other morning that said tourism kills,” she said.

But with no lockdown in sight, and more visitors expected around Christmas and New Year’s, locals just hope for the best.

“I just hope people are quarantining and getting healthy and getting a negative test and we can get these numbers down as soon as possible,” Calder said.

Deadline looms to spend CARES Act funds

Facing a deadline at the end of the year, Gov. Greg Abbott is determining how to spend the remaining $3 billion Texas received when Congress approved the CARES Act for coronavirus relief.

Texas received $11.24 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in March, which has to be spent by Dec. 30. Cities and counties with a population greater than 500,000 automatically received a combined $3.2 billion under state law.

Abbott’s office told KXAN, of the $8 billion left for the state to distribute, $4.5 billion has already been spent.

The state plans to distribute an additional $1.45 billion to the Texas Department of State Health Services and Texas Department of Emergency Management and is working with state agencies to determine how to spend the remaining $2 billion before the end of the year.

A spokesperson for Abbott said the state plans to spend every CARES Act dollar before the Dec. 30 deadline.

“Of the $8 billion in CARES Act funding that Texas received, Gov. Abbott has worked closely with legislative leaders and state agencies to allocate $6 billion so far as part of a data-driven strategy to bolster the state’s ongoing efforts to mitigate this virus and protect the lives and livelihoods of the people of Texas,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary. “With $2 billion remaining of the original funding, the state will spend every dollar by the end of the year to ensure the health and well-being of all Texans.”

Abbott has faced criticism for not involving the state legislature in deciding how to use the federal funds, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and members of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, have been part of the process.

State Rep. Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat, has tracked the state’s share of CARES Act funds for months, saying the process needs to be more transparent.

“We’ve still been unclear with the governor about what the actual plan is to spend the remaining dollars,” Howard told KXAN. “I’m sure he has a plan… but it’s still not put together in a way that’s easily accessible.”

Congressman Lloyd Doggett (D-Austin) called Texas’ remaining balance of CARES Act funds “disappointing and irresponsible.”

“There are real needs out there,” Doggett said. “When you wait until the last minute like this, even if he gets this money to the appropriate places with our local governments, they have little time to spend it efficiently and effectively.

“This is not his piggy bank.”

The state has provided $171 million for rent assistance programs through the CARES Act, so far. Advocates for additional rent assistance have called on Abbott to release additional funds to support those impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The City of Austin received $9.9 million for rent assistance from the CARES Act and has, to date, been able to help 2,815 unduplicated households.

The City’s rent assistance program has less than $900,000 of CARES Act funds remaining, which will be used by the Dec. 30 deadline.

While additional CARES Act funding from the state would help, Nefertitti Jackmon, the housing and policy manager for the City of Austin Planning Department, said the looming deadline to use those funds presents challenges if Congress doesn’t extend it.

“We’re very clear that there are more people who need assistance,” Jackmon said. “To date, nothing has changed in the economic well-being especially of vulnerable households.”

The promise of juvenile justice reform

During his campaign for president, Joe Biden promised to funnel $1 billion dollars a year towards reforming the juvenile justice system and keeping youth out of adult correctional facilities.

As his team continues the transition into the White House, advocates are identifying ways those funds could make changes in the Texas.

The Biden Campaign outlined the following initiatives in 2019:

  • Push for more funding under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. This legislation supports state and local juvenile justice departments in return for these states fulfilling certain requirements, including “addressing the disproportionate representation of children of color in the juvenile justice system.”
  • Create a new grant program for states for in-person support for kids. This initiative will begin as a $100-million pilot program in 15-30 states and counties, urging states to place non-violent youth in community-based alternatives to prison and repurpose empty youth lockups for use as community centers.

Kameron Johnson, the Travis County Public Defender, told KXAN that federal funds and grants often get held up at the state level, utilized by the Texas Department of Juvenile Justice or by the state for the prosecution of accused juveniles.

“I’m going to be one to do everything I can to make sure there’s the follow through and we can get some of those monies down to the local level,” he said.

Last week, the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice awarded more than $221 million to state and local governments, as well as private organizations.

According to the OJJDP, these grants include $84.9 million to fund mentoring programs and services for youth. Another $11 million will fund gang prevention efforts and nearly five million to fund services for mental health assistance and substance abuse disorders.

A portion of the funds will support juvenile indigent defense, but it totals less than one percent of the efforts.

Johnson’s office faced budget cuts due to the pandemic this year, so he said federal assistance would be critical.

Next year, Johnson hopes to see more money designated towards defending kids in court and opening Juvenile Public Defenders offices, like his, across the state.

Still, he said positive to see the emphasis placed on mentorship and development for kids in the system. He said the biggest priority is keeping kids out of the justice system altogether, with drug treatment programs and community outreach programs.

“If we address these issues on the front end than we can do a lot better job. It will be more cost-savings, than building these costly statewide juvenile justice facilities,” he said.

Local advocate Nic Hollins said he can speak to how influential a mentor can be for a juvenile in the criminal justice system. Like many teenagers, he said his story began with one mistake.

“I was out hanging out at a club when I wasn’t supposed to be,” he said.

When shots rang out at that New Mexico club, Hollins was hurt. Another person involved in the shooting died. In the chaos, Hollins said he grabbed a firearm that had been stored in the car he arrived in with a few older friends and family members.

“While I’m laying there bleeding, the paramedics show up on the scene. They got me up, but they had to tell police that I was in possession of a handgun,” he said. “It was a very traumatic experience, to go from being a victim to then being an offender, from doing something I perceived as self-defense.”

He said he understood he had committed a crime and spent time behind bars at a juvenile detention center. As a senior in high school, while recovering from his injuries and attempting to get back on track, a mentor introduced him to computer science and gave him access to technology.

“That totally made the difference for me,” Hollins said. “It’s how I sustain myself and my family to this day. It gave me something to work toward and something I could see as sustainable.”

Years later, he uses those skills on a daily basis as the Chief Technology Officer for the Austin-based data and advocacy non-profit called MEASURE.

“With data, we are able to take our emotion and anecdotal experiences out of the argument or discussion, and put that data forward to see what is the best policy position, what’s best fiscally,” he said. “Oftentimes, a lot of the unfair treatment and processes and policies that we have in place in our judicial system lead to costing taxpayers more money, frankly.”

Hollins hopes to see these grants utilized to fund less institutional positions and more community-based advocates — like professional development mentors and mental health counselors.

“It sets off a cycle of events. A lot of times that has an impact in how they see themselves in our society,” he said.

Hollins went on to say, “It should be non-partisan. Children are loved by everybody, and as cliche as it is, they are our future. I think if we get it right early, we stand a better chance at having systemic criminal justice reform as well.”

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