Texas hospital group disputes concern over unused vaccine
The state's largest hospital association is pushing back against a suggestion from Gov. Greg Abbott and the state's top health official that a large number of coronavirus vaccines could be going unused in Texas hospitals.
The back and forth comes as the state vaccine dashboard shows that just 205,463 Texans had received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine as of midweek, although 678,925 doses have been shipped around the state.
Abbott and Dr. John Hellerstedt, the commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, sounded the alarm Tuesday, urging health care providers to begin vaccinating people 65 and over and those with underlying health conditions, including pregnant women, if they have concluded the first phase of vaccinations.
But most hospitals in the state are still vaccinating the first group of eligible Texans — hospital staffers working directly with coronavirus patients; long-term care residents and staff; emergency workers; and home health care workers — or have not yet received any shipments of the vaccine, according to Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Hospital Association, which represents more than 85% of the state's acute-care hospitals and health care systems.
"Vaccine is not sitting on hospital shelves," Williams said, suggesting the state's immunization reporting system has caused delays in reporting data. "With regard to data, we have no certainty it is accurate at this point in time. The number of doses administered is higher than what’s indicated."
While the number of vaccines shipped across Texas is accurate, there have been "varying reports of the actual number of vaccines administered," a spokesman for the Texas Division of Emergency Management said Wednesday.
The agency launched a website Wednesday showing up-to-date numbers of vaccine doses and therapeutics available at health care providers.
Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze touted the website as a source of "real-time reporting system to show vaccine usage data from health care providers across Texas."
The site, however, does not show how many COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered.
"Voluntary vaccination is well underway for health care workers, residents at nursing homes, and Texans that are age 65 and older or 16 and older with a chronic medical condition to ensure the health and well-being of these vulnerable groups," Eze said. "With new shipments arriving each week provided at no cost, the state of Texas urges providers to swiftly vaccinate as many people as possible from the at-risk groups rather than these live-saving vaccines and medications sitting on shelves.”
'Flooded with calls'
For their part, hospital directors say the call from state leaders to move onto the next tier of vaccinations has caused chaos across the state as hospitals try to manage a vaccine rollout and a growing number of COVID-19 patients, Williams said.
"Hospitals are being flooded with calls from the general public seeking vaccine, which creates further operational challenges," she said. "And, there are still hospitals that have not received any vaccine for their frontlines."
The Austin-area's three health care systems — Ascension Seton, St. David's, and Baylor Scott and White — have received vaccine shipments. All three systems have not moved beyond the first tier of Texans.
"At this time, Ascension Seton remains focused on vaccinating healthcare staff and first responders, and will expand to the community, including those in group 1B, in the coming weeks when the vaccine supply allows," a spokesperson for Ascension Seton said in a statement. "Ascension Seton continues to use all COVID-19 vaccines provided and does not hold any COVID-19 vaccines in reserve."
Still, state data show a wide gap between the number of vaccines shipped and administered in Travis County and the surrounding area.
Just 10,256 people in Travis County have received their first dose of the vaccine out of 37,275 doses shipped to the county, according to the state health agency's vaccine dashboard Wednesday.
Central Texas vaccine providers
At least one provider, Austin Regional Clinic, with locations in Hays, Williamson and Travis counties, acknowledged delays in administering the vaccine.
The clinic's sites received 7,000 vaccine doses Dec. 23 and had administered more than 3,000 by Wednesday, said Dr. Anas Daghestani, the clinic’s chief executive officer.
“We are trying to move (vaccine) as fast as possible,” Daghestani said. He said the clinic is facing shortages in staff to administer the vaccine.
He also said there is also some lag time between when the shots are administered and when that number gets reported to state officials.
Once the clinic network clears a backlog of 1,000 first-responders it will be able to use the vaccine it has left to begin providing shots to people age 65 and up, he said. The clinic expects to clear the backlog by Sunday.
The Williamson County and Cities Health District has already administered the 900 doses it received of the Moderna vaccine and doesn’t know when it will receive another shipment, district spokeswoman Deb Strahler said Wednesday.
An automated message plays for callers to H-E-B pharmacies in Bastrop County stating: “Attention customers. H-E-B Pharmacy is currently vaccinating health care workers in Phase 1A only. When all willing Phase 1A health care workers are complete, and we receive additional vaccines, we will move to the next phase of vaccinations. We will notify customers via heb.com/pharmacy when this happens. Again, we are only vaccinating Phase 1A health care workers at this time.”
The latest statewide data for Bastrop County show that nearly all of the area's 300 vaccine doses have been administered.
Meanwhile, Tarrytown Pharmacy in West Austin received 500 doses of the vaccine and administered all doses to the first group of eligible Texans. The pharmacy said it will wait on a second shipment of vaccine before administering shots to those 65 and older and other eligible recipients.
In Central Austin, 38th Street Pharmacy also administered all of its 200 doses of vaccine to the first group, and the pharmacy is awaiting additional shipments to vaccinate the remaining 1A recipients on its waitlist.
At least one site, Family Emergency Room in Cedar Park, said it is administering vaccines to those 65 and older. The facility asks people to make appointments online, and 150 people already were on the waiting list Wednesday afternoon. The facility received a first shipment of 500 Moderna vaccine doses Tuesday and is expecting another shipment of 200 doses.
'An extreme situation'
State health officials had estimated that 1.4 million Texans would receive the first of two doses of the coronavirus vaccine by the end of 2020. Nearly 380,000 additional doses of the coronavirus vaccine are expected to be sent to providers this week. Even if every vaccine had been administered by Thursday, the state would still be well short of the 1.4 million goal.
The vaccinations can't come soon enough for hospitals across the state, where the rising number of COVID-19 patients have led to overwhelmed intensive care units.
On Wednesday, the state health agency reported 11,992 coronavirus patients in Texas hospitals, a record for the third day in a row.
The state's summer high was 10,893 COVID-19 patients, set July 22.
Coronavirus patients in 12 out of 22 hospital regions in Texas make up more than 15% of each area's total hospital bed capacity, according to state health data. Once an area surpasses the 15% threshold for seven days straight, the region must tighten business occupancy limits from 75% to 50%, close bars and halt elective surgeries.
"Hospitals are in full force, vaccinating everyone they can while managing record-level hospitalizations," said Williams, the hospital association spokeswoman. "This is an extreme situation for hospitals while they also manage vaccine operations. We’re moving as quickly as possible to get shots in arms, with a focus on frontline workers at risk. As an industry, we are certainly not sitting on vaccine."
Staff writers Ryan Autullo and Cameron Drummond contributed to this report.