Their best shot: Health officials continue vaccine push as administrations decline in RGV

McALLEN — Robert Santiago stood in the parking lot of a Walmart on a searing Tuesday afternoon, the sun blaring brightly down on the customers walking in and out of the store, providing a preview of the heat that would settle for a longer stay over the summer months.

Santiago was stationed there as a herald for the COVID-19 vaccine, aided by a 16-foot tall video screen just a few yards away which played looped recordings of state and local officials encouraging passersby to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are strictly bringing the good news that vaccines are available and they are efficacious,” said Santiago, event coordinator for the vaccine outreach event. “They’re safe and we’re encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

The setup at the McAllen Walmart was just one of 23 throughout the state that Santiago was stopping at as part of the Texas Department of State Health Services’ media campaign to deliver information to the public about the vaccine and how to obtain it.

Since April 22, Santiago traveled to Walmart stores in Houston, Beaumont, Longview, Tyler, Dallas, Fort Worth, Mineral Wells, Anson, Lubbock, Amarillo, Midland, Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, El Paso, Del Rio, Eagle Pass, and Laredo, moving on to Brownsville, Victoria, San Antonio, Killeen and Waco after the stop in McAllen.

“We just want to reach a variety,” he said. “We have tried to touch base with people and deliver the message.”

The DSHS efforts to get the word out about the safety and availability of the vaccine comes as the number of vaccine adminstrations has waned over the last several weeks.

The number of vaccine doses administered throughout the state has consistently dropped from week to week beginning in April.

During the week of April 5 through April 11, a high of 115,914 doses were administered in the Valley. That immediately dropped the following week to 86,562 doses administered and has only continued to drop each subsequent week.

As of Thursday, 38% of the entire population of all four RGV counties was fully vaccinated, according to data colleted by DSHS, and about 49% had received at least one dose.

In Hidalgo County, 37% of the county population was fully vaccinated and 48% had received at least one dose. The rates in Cameron County were slightly higher with approximately 39% of their population fully vaccinated and 51% having received one dose.

Among Willacy County residents, 33% of the population had been fully vaccinated and about 43% had received at least one dose but Starr County continued to lead the pack with 47% of their entire population fully vaccinated and 51% having received at least one dose.

Starr County had pulled ahead early on among the counties in the Valley in the rate of residents getting vaccinated but Starr County Judge Eloy Vera acknowledged there had been a considerable drop off.

“Currently, we have more vaccine than people that are coming to get the vaccine but I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Vera said during a news conference the county held May 5, referring to the number of people over 16 years old in the county that had received at least one dose.

“The national average of people that do not want to take the vaccine is around 28% so when we’re at 72% of the people (over 16 years old) vaccinated, that doesn’t leave very many people out there if that 28% is correct,” Vera said. “We hope that’s not the case in Starr County and that there’s still more people out there that are willing to get the vaccine, they just have not had the opportunity and we’re trying to make everything possible so that we can make it feasible for them to come and get their vaccine.”

The decrease in administrations has often been referred to as a decrease in demand but that’s not exactly how Eddie Olivarez, chief officer of Hidalgo County Health & Human Services, would necessarily describe the current situation.

“I feel it’s the people who wanted the vaccine have gotten it; the people who had committed to getting the vaccine have received it,” Olivarez said, noting that the county continues to work with the Texas Division of Emergency Management and DSHS on a program to vaccinate individuals who are homebound.

“The part where I feel that we’re seeing is the people who were always unsure if they wanted it,” Olivarez said. “This is the population of folks who were on the fence, they weren’t really sure they wanted it or not or wanted to wait to see the outcomes, or wanted to wait to see the side effects — those are the people that at this point have not committed to getting it.”

He added that the temporary pause in the distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine last month likely contributed to the concern and hesitancy among those who were on the fence.

“So it’s not that the demand isn’t there, it’s more that the people who weren’t very sure they wanted it are still undecided, that’s my opinion,” Olivarez said. “And then the other thing is you’ve got to consider that the vaccine is … for us, we use Moderna, so it’s 18 and older and a lot of the other providers use Pfizer which is 16 and older, so there’s a whole population that’s not been included on the list because they were too young.”

Olivarez was hopeful that now that the emergency-use authorization for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was expanded to include 12- to 15-year-olds that there would be an uptick in vaccinations. But in addition to that, the county is continuing outreach efforts with marketing programs targeting 18- to 30 year-olds.

To help bolster those vaccination efforts, DSHS awarded $6,771,723 to the Hidalgo County health department.

“We’re going to the flea markets, we’re going to evening events, we’re going to different locations to try to get as many people vaccinated as we can,” he said. “And it might only be 20, 30, 40 doses that we do at an event but, hey, that’s 20 or 30 or 40 people that we got vaccinated that didn’t have it or were unsure about getting it. So every vaccine that is given by Hidalgo County health or by local pharmacists, by DHR, UTRGV, Nuestra Clinica Del Valle — any provider that gives a vaccine — is helping the public health, safety and security of our community. … I thank all the providers for providing vaccine to the community.”

Also hopeful of a bounce back is Richard Ferim, owner of A-Class Pharmacy in McAllen.

“Well, that will be part of the reason,” Ferim said of the emergency-use expansion, “but I’m thinking again that there could be a few more people that are listening about the positive results of the vaccine that might be interested.”

“I know that there are some that have already made up their minds that they’re not taking it but I’m sure there are a few others that want to take it because of the positive results of the vaccine,” he said.

In the first two weeks that his pharmacy started administering vaccine doses, Ferim said about 200 people would show up on a daily basis. Now, 50 vaccine adminstrations in a single day would be a good number, he said.

Like Olivarez, Ferim believed the pause in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine also led to a drop in the demand which he said also affected the administrations of their Pfizer doses.

“It’s not where it was before,” Ferim said. “I don’t know also if maybe those who want to take it have already taken it, maybe that’s part of the reason why but we just experienced a drop after that period.”

Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced a goal of having 70% of adults nationwide vaccinated with at least one dose of the vaccine by July 4. Whether the state will meet that goal is unclear.

“What I can definitely say is we’re going to try hard to make sure that we can get as close to that as possible,” said Imelda Garcia, associate commissioner for DSHS. “We know that our providers are working hard each and every day and while we do know that vaccines have slowed on administrations, we are still administering over a million doses a week for the past several weeks and so there’s still a lot of vaccine that’s being administered across the state.”

“Ultimately, I don’t know exactly when we’ll hit that number,” Garcia added, but we are pushing our providers hard and we know that, collectively, everybody wants to hit that target.”

But among the challenges to meeting that goal, according to Garcia, is making it more convenient for people to obtain a vaccine which she thinks is the main reason behind people waiting to get immunized.

“I don’t know if everyone is actually really, truly hesistant so much as thinking ‘I may get to it when it’s really easy instead of me having to go out of my way in order to get vaccinated,'” she said, adding that she believed access points were in place for the vast majority of the state, particularly where there were a lot of retail pharmacies.

“We have a lot of different access points and we have a lot of providers offices that have it now as well,” she said. “So I think it’s just people looking for the ease of ‘When I want to and when I have time to get it, I’ll get around to doing it,’ I think is probably the biggest challenge right now.”

At A-Class Pharmacy, Ferim said they had administered more than 2,000 vaccine doses so far without incident and said people needed to be assured of the overall safety.

“Maybe people don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes you think maybe something is happening to those who take it but we’ve not had a single adverse reaction of all of the people that we’ve vaccinated so far.”

Ferim said he would continue to put the word out about his pharmacy’s vaccine availability through their Facebook page and word of mouth.

“It’s also important to get the word out because in the Valley area, we want as many people as possible to come out,” he said, assuring his pharmacy would continue to have them available for those who wanted them. “As long as there’s a demand we will … it’s a part of our business.”