Starr County officials express disappointment with vaccine allocation

As Starr County officials continue their push to obtain more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, they’ve made no secret of their disappointment in only receiving a small number of doses compared to neighboring counties.

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera said he is currently awaiting a response from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) on whether the county can get a hold of enough vaccines to hold a mass vaccination event. In the interim, local officials have finalized plans for how to distribute the doses if and when they do receive them.

“I cannot over-emphasize that we’re trying to do everything we can to get vaccines into our community but some of this decision making is really outside of our control,” Vera said. “It’s more in the hands of the state so we’re trying to make as much racket as we can at the state level so that we get our fair share.”

“We’re very unhappy with the fact that we feel that we have not gotten our fair share of vaccines,” Vera added.

As part of the county’s efforts, the judge said he had spoken with Dr. Emilie Prot, regional medical director for DSHS Region 11.

“She said she had gone ahead and (made) the request up to her supervisors and she was just waiting on a response,” Vera said of his conversation with Prot on Wednesday, “so we’re optimistic that we will be getting it.”

“I’m hoping we get it by the end of the week,” he added. “If not, I guess it’ll be shortly thereafter but we’re certainly trying to get that.”

Vera said he was also contacted by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, whose district includes Starr County.

“I went ahead and informed the senator that it was very disheartening for us, as elected officials and as citizens of Starr County, that our neighbors are getting thousands of vaccines and we’re not getting our fair share,” Vera said.

Through the fourth week of distribution, the state has allocated 1,300 doses to Starr County while neighboring Hidalgo County was allocated 32,625 during that same time period.

One contributing factor could be that Starr County does not have the low-temperature freezers needed to adequately store the vaccines manufactured by Pfizer-BioNTech and therefore providers in the county have only received vaccines manufactured by Moderna.

Also, Hidalgo County’s population is estimated at 868,707 while Starr County’s population is around 64,633, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Still, Dr. Jose Vazquez, board president of Starr County Memorial Hospital, felt the county should be taking a more aggressive approach in getting more vaccines for the community.

“For me, it is terrible to see that my community, in Starr County, that we were the leading county through so many, many months at the beginning of this pandemic in efforts to curtail and to mitigate this disease … (and) now we are falling behind over many other counties,” Vazquez said in regards to the low number of vaccines compared to Hidalgo and Cameron Counties.

“I have to be active in participating and trying to secure a significant number of vaccines, “Vazquez continued, “and to ensure that most of the people of this community get their vaccines at least in the same way that other communities within the Valley are getting it.”

Vazquez added that he had also contacted Dr. Prot on behalf of the hospital in an attempt to secure more vaccine doses for the community at-large.

One of his main concerns, Vazquez said, were people that qualified for the vaccine but were patients of clinics or providers that hadn’t enrolled to receive doses.

“There are several clinics where the provider chose to opt out of the vaccination process,” Vazquez explained. “What is going to happen to those patients?”

“So I expressed that worry to the county and I believe that this has to be a joint effort between county and hospital since the hospital is in charge of maintaining and keeping up with the health of this community,” Vazquez added.

Earlier this week, during a video conference call, Vera said hospital officials, the school district superintendents and city mayors met to organize their plans for a mass vaccination event in anticipation of receiving the requested vaccines.

“It went extremely well, everyone was very willing to pitch in and cooperate with personnel, whether it be medical or law enforcement, whatever we need,” Vera said.

According to Vera, plans also include protocols for pre-registration so that the county doesn’t have to contend with thousands of vehicles lined up for the event.

However, officials are still in the process of selecting potential sites for the vaccinations which must be approved by the state.

“We’ve looked at different sites in Rio Grande (City),” Vera said. “Of course, they have to be approved by health and human services and they were down with us, they were also looking at sites with us and our emergency management team.”

“So they do have some sites already pre-selected,” Vera continued, “but again, I cannot tell you it’s going to be at a certain location because we don’t know definitely where that’ll be.”