On Dec. 22, Gov. Greg Abbott sat in a conference room at the Ascension Seton Medical Center in Austin and rolled up his sleeve for the cameras. A nurse pricked a dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine into his left arm and state officials and hospital staff in the room applauded.
Abbott then threw up his arms: “It’s that easy,” he said.
The event was a celebration of a major milestone in the battle against the coronavirus. Although cases were still mounting in Texas and new hospitalizations were climbing, 1.4 million health care workers and vulnerable Texans were set to receive the vaccine by the end of 2020, Abbott said, with millions more to come soon after.
But in the days since that celebration, getting that vaccine to the people eligible to receive it has proven far from easy. The vaccine’s rollout has been marred by poor messaging from state officials, technical errors and logistical delays.
As the final hours of 2020 ticked away, it was unclear whether anyone in the state knew how many doses of the vaccine had been administered here. And after state officials had expressed concern that vaccines were going unused and urged providers to give them to anyone who was eligible, many who met the qualifications were finding it difficult — if not impossible — to track down anyone with vaccines to give. Many counties asked Texans to sign up via an iPhone application or through an online registry, and some elder Texans are finding those technologies onerous.
The confusion left medical experts and people urgently awaiting the vaccine frustrated and questioning how the state would be able to handle smoothly administering vaccines to a population of nearly 30 million in the coming months.
“All of this seems to have been avoidable if it had been properly thought through,” said state Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin.
Mixed messages and confusion
State officials never planned to administer the vaccines themselves. Instead, a state panel would set their own eligibility guidelines based on recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. State officials would allocate an appropriate number of vaccine doses to providers, such as pharmacies, doctor’s offices, hospitals and medical clinics. The providers would receive shipments from the federal government.
Shipments of the vaccine first began arriving at Texas hospitals on Dec. 14. The limited supply, under Phase 1A of the state’s rollout, was reserved for front-line health care workers and residents and staff members of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which have been decimated by the virus. State officials estimated there were 1.9 million Texans eligible in that first tier.
One week later, on Dec. 21, Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, announced that Texans 65 and older, and people who are at least 16 with certain medical conditions, would be next in line. Health officials said it would likely be at least a few weeks before that group, referred to as Phase 1B, could receive their vaccinations.
But two days later, Hellerstedt moved up the timeline. The state’s vaccine tracking system, ImmTrac2, reported “a significant portion of vaccine in Texas may not be administered yet,” according to a letter he sent to health care providers that had received shipments of the vaccine. Hellerstedt directed providers to “administer their entire allotment with all deliberate speed.” At the time, DSHS spokesperson Chris Van Deusen said the Dec. 23 letter was meant to encourage providers not to wait until everyone in the 1A group had been vaccinated before moving on to the 1B group.
Abbott gave a similar message on Tuesday. In a tweet, he suggested that an excess supply of vaccine was available and criticized providers for not moving quickly enough to administer it.