Texas National Guard deployed to get COVID-19 vaccines to homebound seniors

Soldiers with the Texas National Guard worked at mobile COVID-19 testing site at Uhland Elementary School on June 18, 2020. Credit: Jordan Vonderhaar for The Texas Tribune

Some 1,100 members of the Texas National Guard will administer vaccines to senior citizens in their homes in rural and isolated areas of the state in an effort to get the majority of Texans who are 65 and older inoculated against COVID-19 by the end of March, Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday.

Abbott also said that with vaccine supply ramping up considerably starting next week, combined with the anticipated approval of a third vaccine this week, the state could open up eligibility to more Texans beyond the first two identified priority groups sometime next month.

“The good news is there’s going to be a record amount of vaccines available across Texas this week with increasing numbers going forward,” he said. “We’re going to have the capability to … apply vaccines very, very quickly for our seniors as well as additional populations, so that we increasingly, week by week, will be increasing the immunity that Texans have.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services has prioritized Texans who are 65 years old and older and anyone with medical conditions that put them at higher risk for death or hospitalization from the virus. The number of eligible recipients is estimated to include more than 9 million people across the state.

Officials have hinted the next group of vaccine eligible Texans could include teachers and other essential workers.

Abbott said he has been told by President Joe Biden that the state will receive more than 1 million doses next week and that the number could increase if the U.S. Food and Drug Administration grants emergency use authorization this week to a new vaccine by Johnson & Johnson. That vaccine can be stored at regular refrigeration temperatures, is easily moved, and is a one-dose regimen. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two doses and have to be stored at temperatures well below freezing.

The renewed effort to reach senior citizens who are unable or have difficulty leaving their homes, an effort dubbed Save Our Seniors, launches Monday, Abbott said. It is both an expansion of a mobile vaccination program run for several weeks by the Texas Division of Emergency Management and modeled after local programs that partner with nonprofit organizations to identify homebound seniors in need of the vaccines, state leaders said.

Teams of National Guard members will be registering seniors for the program or visiting homes and administering the vaccines, with more than 8,000 vaccines allotted in the first week of the program, and possibly four times that many if the new vaccine is approved, Abbott said.

The teams will work with organizations like Meals on Wheels and nursing groups to identify the seniors that don’t have access to mass vaccination hubs, drive-thru clinics or doctors’ offices, said TDEM Chief Nim Kidd.

The program is modeled in part after the Save Our Seniors program in Corpus Christi, where Abbott made his remarks Thursday. There, some 2,000 doses have been given to homebound seniors through the local program, officials said.

“It creates a ripple effect,” said Corpus Christi Senior Community Services Superintendent Lisa Oliver. “It also benefits those that have daily personal contact with the homebound clients such as caregivers and those who provide in-home services, whether it be home health [or] physical therapy.”

Abbott said identifying and reaching out to homebound seniors who are not regularly in contact with providers is “the biggest challenge” in getting them inoculated.

Some 40% of the state’s population 65 and older have received one dose of the vaccine, Abbott said, but officials aim to get shots to at least 50% of them by the end of next week and vaccinations to all seniors who want them by the end of March.

Texas, with a population of about 29 million, has administered 4.6 million doses to residents and fully inoculated nearly 1.5 million people, according to DSHS.

Abbott said the latest efforts are “absolutely critical” to the state’s goal of eventually reaching herd immunity from the virus and further reducing deaths and hospitalizations among the state’s most vulnerable residents.

“We absolutely want the people in those rural areas to know that we’re coming to help vaccinate them just as fast as we can with as much vaccine is available,” Kidd said.

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