AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas Vaccine Allocation Panel has come to a conclusion on who will be eligible in the next phase of the rollout, but it hasn’t released any details — leaving the state in a group of around a dozen states yet to release its plans for Phase 1C of distribution.
Phases 1A and 1B, which include health care workers, seniors and Texans with chronic conditions, launched in December. Since then, nearly six million Texans have been partially vaccinated. Then, the state added teachers and childcare workers to the list at the beginning of March.
“We have a sense of hope that we can continue our purpose now in educating the children and giving them a safe place to come — and just us being safe,” said Patsy Harnage, director of Bright Beginnings Childcare in North Austin.
She explained most of their kids’ parents were essential workers, so the center was only closed for a few weeks at the onset of the pandemic. She became one of many educators advocating for vaccine prioritization for teachers and child care workers. While the latest move by the state is a “win” for her employees, she knows so many others are still waiting.
“It’s time to stop playing games with people’s lives and get together, so we can go back to normalcy,” Harnage said.
When will essential workers be included?
Many Texans are asking when other workers deemed essential will be included in the rollout. Short answer: it’s unclear.
Looking at the rollout plans for other states around the country, and even CDC recommendations, however, it’s likely soon.
In a virtual news briefing on Thursday, officials with the Texas Department of State Health Services said its ability to expand access to more groups directly depended on the amount of doses allocated to Texas. Imelda Garcia, the associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services, did confirm that DSHS expects to make an announcement this month about which Texans will comprise the 1C category of those eligible to receive the vaccine.
As of March 1, data from the Kaiser Family Foundation showed 13 other states had not released plans for Phase 1C. Meanwhile, 36 states had already released detailed plans for each phase or opted to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations.
Before vaccine doses were available to states, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) from the CDC released these guidelines for how to allocate the initial supply:
- Phase 1a: Health care workers, long-term care facility residents
- Phase 1b: people ages 75+ year, non–health care frontline essential workers
- Phase 1c: people ages 65–74 years, persons ages 16+ years with high-risk or underlying medical conditions, any additional essential workers
“1A made sense — the health care providers and nursing home residents — but after that, to me, they seem a bit fuzzy and hard to operationalize,” said Texas’ leading immunization expert Dr. Peter Hotez. “It’s unfair to ask the pharmacist to be the gatekeeper, you know? Somebody walks in and says I work at ‘x.’ What’s the pharmacist supposed to do?”
Dr. Hotez serves as the Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and as the co-director of the Texas Children’s Center for Vaccine Development. He echoed DSHS on the need to limit access until the supply increases.
“We’re trying to be everything to everybody — we’re trying to prevent hospitalizations and deaths, we’re trying to interrupt transmission, we’re trying to open up the economy, we’re trying to open up the schools. The harsh reality is we have to pick and choose what are areas of greatest importance are right now while those vaccines are rationed,” he said.
Hotez told KXAN last month that he thought the state should prioritize saving the lives of the most vulnerable to severe disease and inoculating teachers in order to fully and safely reopen schools. Texas’ latest move to include educators brings the state in line with Hotez’ recommendations.
Many other states, however, opted to follow the ACIP recommendations and include essential workers in earlier phases.
This week, Arkansas gave food plant workers vaccine access. North Carolina grouped essential workers into several “groups,” and state leaders phased in Group 3 this week, including transportation workers and food service employees.
States such as New York, Colorado, and Wisconsin specifically mention grocery workers in their plans. Oklahoma plans note transit workers in their Phase 1B.
Several states have opted to include people living in congregate settings, like group homes, shelters, prisons and jails in earlier phases.
However, Garcia said DSHS and the expert panel focused on hospitalization and fatality data to formulate Texas’ priority phases.
“Overwhelmingly, those that are more severely impacted — and when I say that I mean those that are hospitalized or have the most severe outcome of death — are in our 65 years and older and individuals that have comorbidities that put them at greater risk of a severe outcome,” she said. “So, at the end of the day, we followed the data, and the data is where we landed with our 1B population.”
Majority of seniors still waiting for first dose of vaccine
Garcia said 46% of people aged 65 and older had received at least one shot, meaning more than half of older, qualifying Texans had not.
“I’ve talked to several of our members now who have reached out saying, ‘I don’t know where to go, I don’t know who to call,'” said Tina Tran, AARP’s Texas director. “I think it is the not knowing that is really causing a lot of anxiety.”
AARP has held telephone town halls and called its members to ensure they aren’t being left behind, but Tran is still concerned.
“Black communities, Hispanic communities — they are just getting vaccinated at much lower rates, and we want to know why,” she said.
The AARP encouraged state and county leaders to put their focus on underrepresented groups.
Patsy Harnage at Bright Beginnings agreed, saying, “We have to get it together. We have to come together and end this chaos. Start thinking about the community, start thinking about the people — the children.”
She noted that the past year has affected development for many kids — socially and scholastically — as they deal with the adjustments of virtual learning and often stressors at home.
“It’s time to stop playing games with people’s lives and get together, so we can go back to normalcy.”