This Rio Grande Valley hospital had more COVID-19 vaccine doses than employees who wanted them

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Health workers at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance readied COVID-19 vaccines for distribution on Saturday. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

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Though he wasn’t slated to get one of the first quarter-million COVID-19 vaccines distributed in Texas, Rio Grande Valley pharmacist Danny Vela figured he’d be earlier in line than most simply because of what he does.

Then he got a call Saturday from someone he knows at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg, one of the Texas facilities hardest hit by the virus this year. Vela is not an employee of the hospital, but he was told vaccines were available if he wanted one.

The reason: The hospital ended up with more vaccines than employees who wanted one, DHR Health’s chief medical officer told the Texas Tribune on Sunday. The lower-than-expected vaccine adoption rate was first reported by The Monitor.

So Vela, a pharmacist and co-owner of Lee’s Pharmacy in the Valley, and his daughter, a Lee’s pharmacy technician, headed to the conference center across the street from the hospital, where a large vaccination operation was underway in the lobby. Two hours later, both father and daughter had gotten a dose.

Vela felt “lucky and relieved,” he said.

Hospitals across Texas began to receive the first batches of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine over the last several days. State guidelines say these initial batches should go to front-line health care workers. But how the actual distribution works may look different from facility to facility as each interprets those state recommendations.

People waited in line at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Conference Center in Edinburg to receive the Pfizer vaccine on Dec. 19, 2020
People waited in line to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance Conference Center in Edinburg on Saturday. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

It will be months before vaccines are widely available to most Texans, whose state is currently setting records for the number of people testing positive for the coronavirus. Health officials have said that people should continue wearing masks, washing their hands frequently and practicing social distance. They also say that vaccinated people could still carry and spread the virus.

Dr. Robert Martinez, the DHR Health chief medical officer, said his hospital received 5,850 doses of the vaccine, the same amount as Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston, though the Houston hospital has a workforce nearly three times the Valley facility’s size.

Martinez said DHR Health officials prioritized employees considered in the first tier for a dose, like hospital staff who work directly with COVID patients and long-term care workers. But administrators realized not enough people eligible for the vaccine were initially going to opt to get it, Martinez said.

“You start to see similar numbers across the country, all this mistrust and misinformation,” he said.

Initially, about 40 to 60% of people who answered a hospital survey said they’d get the vaccine, Martinez said.

The predominantly Hispanic region is made up of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 68,000 people in the area have tested positive for the coronavirus.

DHR Health didn’t want to waste the vaccine doses. After the first day of distribution, the hospital started to go “down the wrung...down the ladder a little bit,” Martinez said. Hospital employees called health care workers at other medical institutions in neighboring cities and counties in the Valley. That included hospitals, nursing homes, behavioral health facilities and anyone with workers on the front lines of COVID.

“The more the merrier here as far as I’m concerned,” said Martinez, who emphasized “it wasn’t a free for all.” He said that he and other staffers told medical workers asking if they could bring relatives not to do so.

No one who showed up for one of these doses had to show proof of their occupation, Martinez said, but many were known to the people distributing the vaccine. Vela said the workers recognized him, but they asked his daughter where she worked and her profession.

“I had no reason to think there was anyone other than health care workers in the line,” Vela said.

A photojournalist working for the Texas Tribune photographed several people in line for, or receiving, the vaccines in Edinburg Saturday. But one person was state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. Lawmakers are not eligible for the vaccine in this first round, unless they are a health care worker, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Lucio, whose district includes the southeast portion of the Valley, could not be immediately reached for comment Sunday night.

Senator Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville,  received his Pfizer vaccination at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg on Dec. 19, 2020
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, received his Pfizer vaccine at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg. Credit: Jason Garza for The Texas Tribune

The photojournalist also spoke to a man who identified himself as a Hidalgo County Sheriff’s deputy. Law enforcement workers are not included in the DSHS first tier of people slated to get the vaccine.

A spokesman for the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s office did not return a call for comment. Martinez said he wasn’t aware of any specifics but that law enforcement does sometimes assist hospital workers.

Van Deusen said in an email that vaccine providers “should follow the priorities set by the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel and DSHS.” In this first phase of distribution, “the priority is to vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities and front-line health care workers who have direct interaction with patients.”

The vaccine is not reserved exclusively for a vaccine provider’s employees, Van Deusen wrote. “We encourage providers...to reach out to other health care workers in their community to help vaccinate them.”

Van Deusen said DSHS will follow up if concerns are raised about who receives a vaccine, to make sure “everyone understands the priorities at this point and what the obligations are.”

In Houston, Texas Children’s Hospital distributed the entirety of its initial vaccine batch to its own workforce. A hospital task force developed its own “equitable allocation framework” to determine who was eligible for those initial doses. That framework took into account not only whether someone was a physician or a nurse, for example, but also whether they were at higher risk for death and also “the impact on the hospital’s ability to care for patients,” said Jenn Jacome, Texas Children’s public relations director.

“At Texas Children's, we're committed to the well-being of every health care hero,” Jacome said. “In order for us to keep the hospital open, there's a number of team members, yes, obviously, those that are providing direct patient care, but others that we need, and that are critical in order to keep the hospital up and running.”

That could mean an IT worker, for example, responsible for keeping the hospital computer system up and running, though she could not confirm if any IT workers received initial doses. The second person to get the vaccine was a custodial worker - Texas Children’s calls them environmental services workers — which the state considers a high priority for the vaccine if they are working in areas with COVID positive patients or at high risk for the virus.

Texas Children’s emailed its entire workforce this week, giving them the opportunity to opt-in to get the vaccine. Those vaccinated in the first phase “both opted in and were considered the highest risk per our equitable allocation framework,” Jacome said in an email. She said Texas Children’s had finished its first phase of vaccine distribution by Saturday night.

DHR Health handed out its last dose Sunday afternoon, Martinez said. His priority, with each new vaccine shipment, will be to offer it to any front-line, DHR Health medical workers who didn’t get it the first time. But he won’t wait too long before going to the next person in line.

“Every day that I store that vaccine in a freezer is another person, or another few people, that die,” he said.

A DHR Health employee named Omar, who asked The Tribune to not use his full name to protect private medical information, got his dose the previous morning. He works as a medical scribe, documenting electronic health records for doctors, in the emergency room of Starr County Memorial Hospital about 50 miles from the DHR Health campus (DHR is his primary employer).

Omar, 23, was excited to get the vaccine, although he said some of his own family members were wary of it.

“I trust the science,” he said.

Jason Garza contributed to this story.

Disclosure: DHR Health has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.