COMMENTARY: Vaccine rollout spurs complaint

By CARMEN ROCCO, M.D., Special to the Herald

We are now 90 days into the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

There is a lot to be grateful for. We are nearing 100 million “shots in arms” nationwide. The COVID-19 disease trend is finally, slowly, painfully, slowly downward — well, maybe downward is too generous; plateauing? But, what a price we have paid. The vaccine rollout, which remained our last and only way out of this pandemic, has been difficult at best and chaotic at worst.

We are a pediatric office and have been at the forefront of the COVID19 pandemic from the beginning. We never closed and we did all we could to respond to the ever-changing needs of our families in the storm that was COVID-19.

As soon as we had an opportunity, we prepared and applied to receive the COVID-19 vaccine through the Texas Department of State Health Services Immtrac Program.

On Nov. 27, we were approved to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. At first, we were told that facilities and providers who “served” patients 65 and older would be prioritized. We waited and waited and waited to see when we would be utilized to help with the vaccine rollout. December came and went, so did January, February and March, and no COVID19 vaccine.

Even our staff, who continued on a daily basis in the plume of COVID-19 treatment and testing for our patients, were struggling to find a provider that would vaccinate our own personnel.

As we saw our parents, grandparents and high-risk patients struggle to find COVID-19 vaccines, we desperately tried with phone calls, messages, texts and emails to individuals such as state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who sits on the State Vaccine Allocation Committee (yes, believe it or not, vaccine allocation is decided by committee!) and Cameron County Judge Eddie Treviño Jr. It was shocking to know that these important allocation decisions were being made largely not by health care and public health individuals but politically connected members of our community.

Needless to say, messages, texts, phone calls, emails asking why we were being bypassed went unheeded.

February and March came and went. We are still pleading with politicians and State Health Department COVID-19 Vaccine hotline personnel to release vaccines to our practice.

The mega rollout chaos continued. It became a lottery game to determine who won a place in line. Families with real needs and vulnerability became resigned to wait.

It is important to bring to the public the awareness of this decisionmaking process for several reasons.

1. Never has a vaccine program been undertaken without the participation of the primary care providers, much less one as ambitious as the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Everyone has been prioritized ahead of the primary care providers — hospitals, pharmacies, and now urgent care centers. This COVID-19 vaccine program cannot succeed without the participation of primary care providers. In the past, primary care providers have delivered half of all influenza vaccines year after year after year.

2. Pediatricians are trained to provide vaccines. All day, every day. We counsel families on vaccines. We have been answering questions regarding vaccine hesitancy, writing letters for underlying medical conditions, trained to handle vaccine reactions. Exclusions of this important army of healthcare providers will continue to create confusion and chaos.

3. There is no need to have mega six-hour clinics when you have not even touched the medical homes where patients naturally come to obtain their vaccines. This vaccine rollout has been much more difficult by design than is necessary.

4. All pediatricians have the capacity to store the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Most recently, the FDA approved the Pfizer vaccine storage with the same requirements as Moderna. There is no longer any reason to exclude the healthcare providers who have been storing vaccines as part of their practice rituals.

So here we are, still waiting and wondering. Families, grandparents, parents have been though enough.

It begs to ask the question: If you have excluded the spokes of your wheel, how do you expect your wheel to work? The hub needs the support of the spokes.

Is this about control, power?

Do the right thing and allow patients access to these vaccines where they should have always had access to these vaccines — in their medical homes.

Carmen Rocco, M.D. is a Brownsville pediatrician.