RIO GRANDE CITY, Texas – Starr County leaders want to know why the state is allocating them a small amount of coronavirus vaccines.
The county has a population of around 70,000. It is only getting about 1,000 vaccines a week. So, at this rate it will take more than a year to vaccinate everyone.
The leaders say it cannot be that they are getting such a miserly amount of vaccines because they are a rural county as other rural counties have received more.
They also say they meet all the criteria for being a high-risk county deserving of attention, such as having a high number of residents living in poverty and a large number suffering from illnesses such as diabetes and obesity.
Last week, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar organized a roundtable discussion on the issue. Among those participating were Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, Rio Grande City Mayor Joel Villarreal, state Rep. Ryan Guillen, and Dr. Jose Vasquez, president of the board of Starr County Memorial Hospital.
Much of the anger was directed at the State of Texas. The leaders say they want the state government to classify Starr County as a hub for vaccine distribution. That way it would get a larger allocation. The also said they support moves by the Biden Administration to bypass the state and get vaccines delivered directly to independent pharmacists and community health clinics.
County Judge Eloy Vera
“We are very grateful that the Congressman is down here to inform us about what is happening in Washington. Certainly we put a bug in his ear, which I am sure he already knew, about the lack of vaccines in our community,” said Vera.
“We have been shaking any bush we could find to see if we can get vaccines to be allocated to us. It has gotten a little better but it is not anywhere close to where we need to be.”
Vera said Starr County hospital is getting anywhere from 1,000 to 1,300 vaccines a week.
“But again, that is not enough. Our county population is probably close to 70,000. So at that rate we will be vaccinating for a year before we can vaccinate all of our people and that is just not acceptable,” Vera said.
Vera said Rep. Guillen has been working “extremely hard” to get the State of Texas to classify Starr County or its general hospital as a hub for vaccine distribution.
“We feel that is going to be the solution to these lack of vaccines. It seems as though the state is going into the hub system versus, when they first started, where they would send vaccines to individual clinics and pharmacists,” Vera explained.
“Now it seems like a large number of the vaccines are going to the hubs. And Starr County not having a hub, that is one of the reasons we are being shortchanged.”
Vera said he hopes things will change thanks to hard work of Congressman Cuellar and Rep. Guillen.
“We hope we will be designated at least one hub in the near future. We must, if we are going to beat this thing. Again, we are very grateful to the Congressman and Rep. Guillen and everyone who has been working on this thing.”
Vera added that a great attribute about Starr County is that its political and community leaders always work together.
“It does not matter if we don’t agree, we still work together. We had a Zoom meeting about a month ago with the school superintendents, the mayors, the hospital, emergency management from the county, and ourselves, Rep. Guillen and we were able to come together in agreement that if we were able to get two or three thousand vaccines we could pool our resources, with the pharmacists and the the school nurses, the city law enforcement for traffic control and so forth. Working together, I am sure we could vaccinate two or three thousand people a day. We might not have one big entity but we do have a lot of cooperation from our community to make it happen.”
Asked by a reporter if everyone in Starr County wants the vaccine, Vera said: Let me answer that this way. Last week when Dr. Vasquez said he had a thousand more vaccines. We had 10,000 residents responding. The demand is there, we are just not getting them.”
Mayor Joel Villarreal
“Everybody here is working diligently to make sure that we get more vaccines and that is really the predicament that we are in. We have not had the adequate number of vaccines here in our area. When you look at the nine weeks of distribution, you are averaging about 500 vaccines per week,” Villarreal said.
Mayor Villarreal said if one looks at the guiding principles for vaccine distribution laid out by Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Department of State Health Services, and at the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Starr County should be at the top of the list for vaccines.
“The Governor and the Department of State Health Services have an expert vaccination allocation panel. Their guiding principles include geographic diversity, making sure that rural communities are receiving an adequate number of vaccines, in comparison, per capita, to urban communities. Also, that allocations are data-driven. They are looking at protecting vulnerable populations, mitigating health inequities, and, of course, protecting healthcare frontline workers.”
Vera said when one looks these guiding principles, “we meet every single guiding principle. But yet, I don’t think we have been allocated the adequate number of vaccines.”
Villarreal said the CDC’s guidelines for vaccine distribution look great… on paper.
“Why? Because you are going to be considering the most vulnerable populations. If you look at the data, and this is from the CDC, according to the CDC, they have us as a COVID-19 community vulnerability index of .99, which is the highest in the nation. They are looking at the number of uninsured people, ours is over 33 percent. You are looking at poverty, ours is 35 percent.”
Villarreal reiterated that if vaccine allocation was based on the health profile of a county, Starr would be near the top of the list.
“If there is anything to say about our community, we are a vulnerable population that requires more vaccines than we have been allotted. That is not to say that other communities do not need these vaccines but if it is based on the guiding principles, our county would be at the top of the list.”
Rep. Ryan Guillen
Rep. Guillen said he was not at the roundtable to defend the State of Texas. Far from it, he said, he was there to represent the people of his district.
“These are challenging times. We have all got family members and friends and acquaintances and community members that are dying (of COVID-19). This has been going on for a year. It has obviously been handled terribly,” Guillen said.
“If you talk about vaccines, I have got a lot of complaints, obviously.”
One of Guillen’s complaints is how the state government is run. He pointed out that the state legislature only meets every other year for five months. He said although the legislature is currently in session, committee hearings have not even started.
“That is troublesome for us,” Guillen said. “When it comes to this vaccine crisis, where we disagree with how it is being handled, well, the legislature could possibly address it, but cannot do it now. And the legislation will not go into law until the fall. Our government process is giving us hurdles that we do not need right now.”
Another question Guillen has is, why the federal government did not order enough vaccines.
“Why couldn’t we supply the vaccines faster? Why wasn’t it all hands on deck and require big manufacturers to adjust their manufacturing processes to help make these things on a bigger scale.”
Earlier in the roundtable discussion Congressman Cuellar said the Biden Administration is looking at ways to bypass the State of Texas and get vaccines sent straight to community health clinics and independent pharmacists. This pleased Rep. Guillen.
Guillen said: “There is no question that there is a lot of unfairness on how the vaccines have been distributed by the state. At first we thought the rural folks were being cheated but now we see it is not even that because there are some rural areas that are getting plenty. It is hard to put your finger on what the formula is. Other than they prioritized people who acted faster.”
Guillen said that in order to be classified as a “hub,” county leaders needed to know about this in order to apply for the designation.
“If they (the State of Texas) had been more upfront and transparent about deadlines and how they were going to move forward, I know a lot of people would have acted differently. It is unacceptable and it needs to be changed and I hope that they understand that and start to address it quickly and efficiently and that they allow areas that have been left behind to catch up.”
Guillen added: “I wish they would send them (vaccines) directly to each county or an entity in the county.” Asked by a reporter if he would like the federal government to bypass the State of Texas and get them straight to Starr County, Guillen said: “At this point, yes, because of the way it has been mishandled by the state.”
Dr. Jose Vasquez
In his remarks at the roundtable, Dr. Vasquez said Starr County has been in a crisis mode over the pandemic for many months. He said its people want to feel a sense of security.
“We have not seen enough vaccines to give that sense of security, where our citizens know we are doing everything we can to bring the vaccines to our county.”
Vasquez said it is not fair that Starr County residents have to travel to neighboring counties to get to a vaccine distribution hub. He noted his county has the highest percent of residents suffering from obesity, diabetes and poverty. “Those facts put us in a perfect storm,” he said.
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