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Officials across Texas look at plans for COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Jerrie Whiteley, Herald Democrat and Healther Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

As coronavirus vaccine trials continue to show promise, Texas counties are working on plans to best distribute any potentially life-saving drug to residents.

Travis County health care workers have joined forces to plan how to best distribute any potentially life-saving drug to residents in the Austin area next year, and in Grayson County, local officials discussed the possible roll out plans Tuesday.

Austin Public Health recently launched the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Coalition, which is made up of local health care and community partners. Once a vaccine is available, the coalition will work to administer doses to the public.

“Planning for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine will once again require many stakeholders and a community effort to be successful,” Stephanie Hayden, Austin Public Health director, said in a recent statement. “We still have a long road ahead of us, but the COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution Coalition marks the beginning of a new chapter in our response.”

So far, two coronavirus vaccines are showing overwhelming success during their trial periods, according to a report by The Associated Press on Monday. Moderna and Pfizer Inc. this month both announced their vaccines were showing to be at least 90% effective.

However, Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said during a recent interview that vaccines will need continued testing to determine how successful they will be, adding that he is hesitant to believe the efficacy rate would be as high as 90%.

Hope for a coronavirus vaccine by early next year comes as COVID-19 cases are rising once again in Travis County and across the nation. Over the weekend, Travis County saw its highest daily tally of confirmed coronavirus cases since late August. The highest daily spike in coronavirus cases before the weekend was on Aug. 20, when health officials reported 291 new confirmed cases in one day. On Saturday, health officials reported 300 new daily cases.

Grayson County saw its highest number of positive cases to date over the weekend with 425 active cases. That number had dropped to 326 by Monday.

On Tuesday, Grayson County Judge Bill Magers said the county would likely get direction from the state on how to distribute any doses of vaccine it receives.

"We are gonna plan for the worst case scenario of limited availability," Magers said. He added, however, "We have a machine in place to deliver a vaccine —we are just gonna slide this in there and go." 

 He said the county health department is already well practiced at administering vaccines. The county won't be the only place that will get the vaccines as some 300 providers including local hospitals and doctors offices  are applying to be able to do so. The Health Department will provide the vaccine to its normal patient pool including the folks that work at the Grayson County Sheriff's Office and the Grayson County Jail. 

Four small vials labeled COVID-19 vaccine.

When asked if the population at the Grayson County Jail would be required to take the vaccine, Grayson County Health Authority Dr. Jerry Bennett said the inmates would be offered the vaccine if there is enough of it. 

Grayson County Sheriff Tom Watt said he is sure that the Texas Commission on Jail Standards will have guidance for the jail on how to roll out any vaccine after it becomes available. 

Magers said nothing in set in stone, but he thinks, at this point, that the county will be asking county employees to get the vaccine from their health care provider rather than from the health department. 

Escott last week warned of a potential surge by Thanksgiving if residents did not tighten social distancing practices and hygiene standards in Travis County.

Health officials last week warned residents against holiday gatherings, especially because the coronavirus vaccine supply will not be available to the general public right away.

Vaccines are expected to be limited at the beginning of their distribution. They will first go to health care workers and those at increased risk for severe COVID-19 symptoms, according to Escott.

Vaccine distribution will likely not begin until spring 2021, Escott said.

Coalition meetings will focus on identifying those most at risk, in addition to developing a strategy for distribution, vaccine temperature storage, management and community messaging and engagement, according to Austin Public Health officials.

“As a community, we need to recognize that even when a vaccine becomes available, initially it will not be widely available for the general public,” Escott said. “We will need to prioritize our most vulnerable and ensure equitable distribution across our community.”

For COVID-19 information and updates, visit AustinTexas.gov/COVID19.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.