A dozen people were lined up in front of Sullivan Pharmacy & Gifts before it opened Monday morning.
All were there for a single reason, owner and pharmacist Joe Sullivan said: to get a dose of the COVID- 19 vaccine they’d heard the business, 1140 Grand Ave., had received.
They were out of luck. All 400 vaccine doses Sullivan already had were committed to people such as first responders and people who, because of their age, qualified for early rounds of inoculation, he said. He didn’t know when he’d get more, he said.
“Our goal right now is to use as much vaccine as we can so the state will send us more,” Sullivan said. “We’ve asked for a lot more. But we don’t know if we’re going to get it or not.”
Sullivan wasn’t alone in waiting for answers.
A week after state leaders demanded health care providers begin offering COVID vaccinations to people 65 and older or with preexisting health conditions, frustration was rising among county residents as they searched and often failed to find somewhere to get the vaccine or even information from health providers about how to go about it.
Doctors offices and pharmacies had been overwhelmed with calls, and people had been using whatever “in” they could find in attempt to schedule an appointment.
As of Tuesday, 7,458 county residents had received at least one of the two COVID-19 vaccinations needed for immunity, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That amounts to 2.8 percent of the county population over the age of 16.
JUMPING THE LINE?
Among the vaccinated have been front-line medical workers, who were the highest priority recipients for the first shipments of vaccine, and people who work at health care facilities but not with patients, officials said. Those non-medical health care workers got doses of vaccine that had been thawed and were unclaimed at the end of a day, officials said.
In Galveston County, 18 facilities had been allocated 12,675 vaccine doses, according to state records.
Most of those, 9,175, had been allocated to the University of Texas Medical Branch.
As more vaccines were being shipped to the county, rumors circulated about people not qualified by job or age or medical status jumping the line to receive vaccines before people in higher-priority groups. It was, the criticism ran, an example of the old Galveston story — different rules depending on who you know.
On Monday, The Daily News asked the medical branch to respond to rumors that vaccines had been offered to medical branch retirees and to members of its President’s Cabinet, a group of donors including alumni, faculty, staff, friends and business and community leaders.
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, the medical branch said it had not “intentionally” allowed anyone to jump the line for vaccinations.
But in a statement late Tuesday, the medical branch acknowledged it had in recent weeks contacted people other than employees to offer the shots.
Those offers were made when Abbott’s office ordered the doses be made available to a wider group of people, officials said.
“Over the winter break, with many employees on vacation or otherwise not available to get vaccinated, we did not have as many of our employees sign up to get the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine,” medical branch spokesman Christopher Smith Gonzalez said.
“Because the best way to fight back against this virus is to inoculate as many people as possible, UTMB contacted some members of the community who met the current state and federal guidelines to get vaccinated,” he said.
Over the weekend, an internet link circulated that purportedly could be used to sign up for COVID vaccines from the medical branch.
The link, however, was meant to be used only by local first responders and other people who already had been cleared for a shot.
By Tuesday, the medical branch had edited the link to specify who was qualified to sign up for vaccinations. People who are qualified would be invited through “email, text or by their physician,” according to the message.
The unqualified would have to wait between 12 weeks and 18 weeks for vaccinations, according to the message.
It’s unclear whether people not in the high-priority categories who used the link before the changes were made were allowed to keep their appointments.
The message to wait comes after Gov. Greg Abbott on Dec. 29 and other state officials demanded vaccine providers begin administering shots to older people and people with pre-existing conditions. Before that demand, local health officials had said the plan was to expand to larger groups by mid-January.
The day after Abbott’s orders, the Galveston County Health District advertised a sign-up for vaccinations but only had 100 doses available. Another 400 would be available today, the district said Tuesday.
The medical branch has offered vaccines to people outside the initial groups, although the process for getting one is opaque.
Marianne Pascal, a Galveston resident, was able to schedule a vaccination for her mother, Lucy, by sending a message to a doctor though the medical branch’s online schedule system. Lucy Pascal, 89, received her first dose of COVID vaccines Sunday. Marianne Pascal, who is 52 but has a preexisting health condition, is scheduled to get her first dose in a couple of weeks, she said.
“When the call came back to my phone, I was relieved to the point where I actually teared up,” Pascal said. “It was a tremendous relief.”
Pascal said she had encountered the rogue sign-up link and was tempted to use it, but didn’t. She worried using an avenue meant for first responders would “jinx” her chances of actually getting her shot.
Other people haven’t been so lucky.
Galveston resident Mike Guillory, 72, questioned why Galveston County wasn’t setting up a system like nearby counties allowing people to preregister for vaccination. The Houston Health Department and Fort Bend County on Monday opened online portals where people could preregister for vaccinations.
‘NOT DOING WAIT LISTS’
“There doesn’t seem like there’s anybody in charge,” Guillory said. “There’s nothing. There’s no information, and I don’t know why.”
Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said the county was making no such plans. If anyone was going to create a centralized system, he expected the Galveston County Health District would do it, he said.
Mass vaccinations is “one of the primary reasons the health district exists,” Henry said. “I don’t disagree with you that there seems to be chaos and confusion, but I don’t know how we would step in.”
Henry’s office said it had offered the health district staff if the district needed help in signing people up for vaccinations.
As of Tuesday, the Health District planned to offer vaccines as it received allotments in coming months, Health District spokeswoman Ashley Tompkins said.
“We’re not doing wait lists,” she said. “When we have vaccine doses available, we’ll announce that to the public for them to make an appointment.”
The district’s strategy became more apparent on Tuesday afternoon, when it announced it had received another 400 doses of the Moderna COVID vaccine. The district will begin taking reservations for the doses at 9 a.m. today, Tompkins said.
‘CONNECTIONS OR SOMETHING’
In announcing the new doses, the district urged people to stay calm.
“We do ask for everyone to be patient, especially when making appointments,” the district said. “We are excited to see such demand for the vaccine, but we are limited in our supply.”
The district’s new doses will be given only to people at least 65 years old, Tompkins said.
Because vaccine distribution is being managed through the state, the district doesn’t have information about supplies at facilities other than its own, Tompkins said.
She suggested people call their own doctors about being vaccinated.
Guillory, meanwhile, had resorted to calling every local health care provider and pharmacy he could find to leave his name on whatever list they have in the hopes of getting a call. He was suspicious about people who had managed to get through, he said.
“I know some people who have gotten the vaccine,” Guillory said. “Somehow, they had the wherewithal or they got the connections or something. It feels like there are people that get preferential treatment. Of course, I’ve always felt that about Galveston anyhow.”