After mass cancellations of vaccination appointments and frustrations about local vaccine shortages, a lesson has emerged for health care providers, the University of Texas Medical Branch’s top leader said Tuesday.
The key to ensuring vaccination efforts run smoothly is to ensure there are enough vaccine doses to go around, said Dr. Ben Raimer, interim medical branch president.
“We’ve learned that the hard way,” Raimer said. “You don’t hang out your shingle unless you can deliver.
“If you say you can do such-and-such, you should do such-and such, or else don’t do it at all,” he said. “I think that’s what we need both the state and federal government to do.”
During the six weeks COVID-19 vaccines have been available in Texas, the medical branch has administered at least one shot to more than 15,000 people, officials said Tuesday. That’s equivalent to 84 percent of all the vaccinations that have occurred in Galveston County to date.
But while thousands have been vaccinated, the local effort also has caused frustration, as supplies were directed away from the county to large cities and many people struggled to find local providers who could schedule them for vaccination.
During a town hall discussion about vaccinations at the medical branch on Tuesday, Raimer said he understood the anger people had about vaccine availability.
Raimer called the initial rollout of the vaccines “aggravating” and “frustrating” and said he understood why some local people might be trying to get vaccinated outside the county.
“I think if people are going and getting on multiple lists, that’s what desperate people do,” Raimer said. “We see that with people who have need for an organ transplant. They will go register for that organ transplant, and register in multiple sites. It’s like playing the lottery.”
Medical branch officials hope to eventually be able to schedule and vaccinate up to 5,000 people a day, Raimer said. But being able to do that will require a major increase in the manufacturing and shipment of new vaccines.
Medical branch officials expounded Tuesday about what went wrong in earlier efforts to get vaccines into people, but local leaders also related new clarity about how mass vaccinations would be conducted going forward.
County officials announced Walter Hall Park in League City would be closed for up to three months so it could be used as a mass vaccination site in the northern part of the county.
Barriers went up around the park on Tuesday morning along with signs announcing it would be used as a “vaccination effort.” The county plans to begin assembling tents at the site today .
Walter Hall Park, which is on the Galveston County-Harris County line, was chosen because it has two main access points and likely won’t cause traffic problems as people lined up to be vaccinated, officials said.
The county plans to use the park as a drive-through vaccination site where people won’t have to leave their cars when they’re getting their shots, officials said.
The county hopes to open other sites in other cities in the future and to begin a mobile vaccination clinic to help reach underserved communities, officials said.
The county is paying for part of set-up of the site by using disaster-response contracts in place to respond to hurricanes.
Galveston-based disaster recovery company DRC Emergency Services is setting up the site, officials said.
More details about how people can sign up for appointments at the vaccination hub are expected to be announced later this week, officials said.
But even as one plan gets off the ground, vaccination distribution likely isn’t in its final form, said Dr. Janak Patel, the medical branch’s director of infection control and health care epidemiology.
Coming months likely will see the approval of vaccines from more pharmaceutical companies, which will further increase the supply, he said. Eventually, there will be widespread availability, Patel said.
“I have a feeling that in a few weeks, we’ll be doing something different,” Patel said. “It’s about different vaccines being available. As the supply increases, and there are more access points, the drive-through may be irrelevant.”