When orders went out to widen the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, physicians at the University of Texas Medical Branch rushed to identify and contact people suddenly eligible to receive a shot.
The effort involved a lot of phone calls and participation of many, including top medical branch administrators, to get people signed up.
Among those making the calls was the medical branch’s interim president and the county’s local health authority, who personally phoned to invite the eligible to be vaccinated.
“In a good faith and well-intentioned effort to get as many people who meet the criteria vaccinated as possible, UTMB employees, including Dr. Ben Raimer, Dr. Philip Keiser (also the local health authority) and other faculty members contacted and encouraged members of the community to get vaccinated,” the medical branch said in a statement.
The rush of calls was not the way the medical branch hoped to roll out the vaccines to at-risk groups, officials said.
But faced with pressure from the state to get more vaccinations out the door, the medical branch resorted to personal phone calls, rather than a more centralized system, to get the vaccines into people’s bodies, officials said.
DEMAND AND DEMANDS
As of Friday, 9,172 people in Galveston County had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccination, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s about 3.4 percent of the county’s population of people over the age of 16.
The state’s data doesn’t specify how many of those were health care workers, were older than 65 or had preexisting health conditions.
On Dec. 29, Texas Gov.Greg Abbott and health Commissioner John Hellerdstedt demanded distribution sites such as the medical branch begin offering vaccine doses to Group 1B, which includes people at least 65 years old or who have chronic health conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus.
The state’s order came at least three weeks before the medical branch expected, officials said. Group 1B includes more than 113,000 people in Galveston County.
The medical branch asked its doctors to begin personally contacting patients who would qualify for vaccinations. Officials initially hoped to vaccinate employees who qualified for group 1B, the medical branch said in a statement.
But after defrosting a batch of vaccines, which must be kept frozen to avoid spoiling, officials found there were fewer employees on campus than anticipated because of the holiday week, according to the statement.
“Rather than let it go to waste, UTMB physicians and staff worked diligently to find people in the community who fell under group 1B to get vaccinated,” according to the statement.
Keiser, the local authority, said the initial rollout was “very confused” and a “free-for-all” that prompted all sorts of rumors about who was getting the vaccine. He didn’t, however, know of any improprieties such as people not qualified for 1B treatment in the initial rollout, he said.
But Keiser said he understood if some people thought the system was unfair.
“We can have a system that’s fair and even and reasoned; we wouldn’t be able to get the vaccines out quickly,” Keiser said. The ultimate goal is to get 75 percent of the county’s population vaccinated, he said.
The medical branch is trying to distribute its vaccines as “quickly and equitably” as possible, the statement said.
The medical branch didn’t track how many people scheduled appointments after receiving phone calls. At the same time the calls were being made, other people were reaching out to medical branch physicians on their own, and others were invited to receive vaccinations while they were at unrelated medical appointments, officials said.
Raimer declined to be interviewed about the vaccination program.
As of Friday, there was no organized system for qualified members of the general public to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations.
The medical branch, which has received a majority of the vaccines issued to the county, encouraged people who use its affiliated doctors to contact their physicians to schedule an appointment.
People who do not use medical branch doctors have reported being turned away from scheduling vaccinations.
The Galveston County Health District, the county’s public health agency, has received about 500 doses of vaccines in the past four weeks. The health district has twice opened phone lines to schedule COVID vaccinations. Both times, the slots for vaccinations were filled within hours — with officials reporting being inundated by people seeking the vaccine.
Other designated distribution sites, such as pharmacies at H-E-B and Kroger grocery stores, haven’t announced their plans to schedule vaccinations and have said they, like other distributors, have only so far received a small number of vaccines from the state.
Officials say that coming months will bring wider availability of the vaccine and quell the surge of demand that came with its initial release. On Thursday, Abbott announced that more doses will be sent to large “vaccination hubs” capable of providing shots to more than 100,000 people.
It was unclear whether Galveston County would be included in any of the hubs.
With only a limited supply, the question of who is getting the first doses of COVID-19 vaccinations is a matter of intense scrutiny across the country.
‘HOW DO YOU DEVELOP A PLAN?’
In Florida, for instance, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott on Thursday demanded a federal probe after The Washington Post reported a West Palm Beach nursing home directed some of its vaccinations to donors and board members.
The medical branch said none of the people called in its initial rollout were outside eligible groups. Beyond defining who’s in the eligible groups, state rules don’t dictate how vaccine providers determine who gets the earliest shots.
Officials acknowledged, however, that some of the people who’ve received vaccines might also have donated to the medical branch.
“UTMB has a large list of donors from the community and it would not be surprising for there to have been some donors who were vaccinated,” the statement said.
Medical branch officials had previously confirmed the organization was offering doses to employees who fell outside of high-risk groups because it had thawed more doses than turned out to be needed.
The medical branch declined to name the people who were part of the initial 1B group, citing medical privacy laws. The medical branch declined to say where the initial group of people lived or what demographic group they fell into.
The people who were invited were “Galvestonians,” the medical branch said.
In the first week of the new year, the system for making appointments has become more organized. Administrators aren’t making phone calls any more, a spokesman said.
Medical branch patients have been advised to wait for messages from their primary care physician to schedule appointments. The medical branch could not say whether or when it would be able to open appointments to a wider group of the public.
“As of today, UTMB does not know how many vaccines we will receive next week or if we will receive any at all,” the statement said. “How can you develop a plan to vaccinate a community when you do not know whether or not you will receive supply or the amount to be received? UTMB does not control the supply and distribution of the vaccine.”