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Houston's Medical Center likely to receive large portion of first round of COVID-19 vaccines

DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt approved recommendations that health care workers will get the vaccine first.

HOUSTON — Texas' Department of State Health Services said large cities with big medical centers and lots of health care workers will likely receive the bulk of the 1.4 million doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine coming to the state.

DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt approved recommendations from the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel (EVAP) that health care workers likely to provide direct care for COVID-19 patients and other vulnerable residents should be the first group to receive the vaccine. This includes staff at hospitals and long-term care facilities, emergency medical services and home health care workers. 

This week, that panel is finalizing recommendations for which cities should get priority, according to DSHS. Dr. Hellerstedt will have the final approval, then request shipments from the CDC.

“We want to make sure we’re making it available to those people who need it the most," said Chris Van Deusen, Director of Media Relations for DSHS. “We want to get it as widely across Texas as we can, getting it to the places that can do the most good.”

To start, Texas will allocate vaccines based on certain criteria:

  • Protecting health care workers who fill a critical role in caring for and preserving the lives of COVID-19 patients and maintaining the health care infrastructure for all who need it.
  • Protecting frontline workers who are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to the nature of their work providing critical services and preserving the economy.
  • Protecting vulnerable populations who are at greater risk of severe disease and death if they contract COVID-19.
  • Mitigating health inequities due to factors such as demographics, poverty, insurance status and geography.
  • Data-driven allocations using the best available scientific evidence and epidemiology at the time, allowing for flexibility for local conditions.
  • Geographic diversity through a balanced approach that considers access in urban and rural communities and in affected ZIP codes.
  • Transparency through sharing allocations with the public and seeking public feedback.

With more than 106,000 employees, the Texas Medical Center is likely to get a sizable portion of the first round of doses, with more coming each week.

"Large facilities where they have a large number of healthcare workers that they can vaccinate very, very quickly -- that will give us the most bang for our buck," Van Deusen said.

That high priority, combined with broad definition of "health care worker," means even hospital housekeeping staff, or pharmacists who make rounds with doctors and nurses, could be some of the first to get the vaccine.

“I think it offers a glimmer of hope and a bit of a light at the end of the tunnel," Van Deusen said.

Tonique Hodges, a medical assistant in an OB/GYN clinic in the Medical Center, could also be one of those to receive it since she and her coworkers have direct contact with the general public. She already caught COVID-19 once.

“I had everything except loss of taste and sense of smell, but yeah, I don’t ever want that again," Hodges said. “I know a lot of people don’t agree with getting an injection, but I’d rather get that than get COVID.”

Van Deusen said it will take several months before the general public can get the vaccine at a doctor’s office or pharmacy.

"We can’t let our guard down yet. It’s going to take time. It’s going to take months to get vaccine to everybody who wants to be vaccinated in Texas," Van Deusen said.

Doctors say vaccines will only be effective in slowing the spread if at least 75 percent of people get them.

Different parts of Texas could get different vaccines as more companies get approval and production ramps up.

The Pfizer vaccine only ships in batches of 1000 or more, and must be stored in special freezers at nearly 100 degrees below zero. Moderna’s vaccine does not need that special freezer, and can ship in batches of 100 or more, which could allow rural areas to get faster access to a vaccine.