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One Texas health district received 900 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Then, it closed for Christmas.

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Texas front-line health care workers are the first to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

The Williamson County and Cities Health District on Wednesday received 900 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, then closed its offices for Christmas.

District officials said Thursday that the vaccine arrived earlier than scheduled and it was impossible to speed up plans to administer vaccines starting Saturday. But the move drew a sharp rebuke from local leaders, who felt that health officials shirked their duties by failing to promptly administer doses of the vaccine.

“We actually have the tool in our toolbox and we’re hanging onto it,” said Williamson County Judge Bill Gravell. He criticized district officials for taking time off while first responders in the Central Texas suburban county, home to Round Rock, continued to work.

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“I’m just profoundly disappointed,” he added.

Gravell said he urged the health district to promptly administer the vaccine to those eligible, including front-line health care workers and first responders. But district clinics won’t reopen until Saturday.

Deb Strahler, health district spokesperson, said that the district was told on Tuesday evening that a shipment of vaccine doses would not arrive on Wednesday, so the team was surprised when it did. Planning efforts were finalized on Tuesday and include four consecutive days of vaccinations beginning Saturday at 7:30 a.m., she said.

"We felt it was important to be consistent and not create last-minute changes that would generate potential chaos, reduce turnout, and increase the potential for wasted vaccine doses, which must be administered within six hours of opening a vial," Strahler said.

Strahler defended the district's decision to close for the holiday.

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"Our vaccine operations are based around shift change times that worked best for partner agencies, and our staff will be working through the holiday weekend during their normally scheduled time off," she said.

Texas health officials reserved the first doses of the vaccine for front-line health care workers and long-term care residents and staff.

The health district said it will vaccinate firefighters who engage in emergency services such as prehospital care, last responders who provide services for those with COVID-19 and school nurses who care for students and teachers.

Doses of the COVID-19 vaccine first arrived in Texas last week, marking a historic milestone in the fight against the coronavirus, even as the state battles a wave of new cases and hospitalizations headed into the holidays.

The monumental task of administering vaccines to every person who wants one could take six to nine months.

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Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, earlier this week urged providers that received shipments of the vaccine to act “with a sense of urgency” in vaccinating those who are willing and eligible.

“The purpose of this letter is to reiterate that we direct all entities that have been allotted vaccine to administer their entire allotment with all deliberate speed,” Hellerstedt wrote. “Keep in mind, more vaccine will be delivered over the coming days, weeks and months. The time to vaccinate willing individuals is now.”