Vaccines make promising strides, but still ‘down the road’ for most Big Bend residents

Some promising vaccines are on the way — but a state health spokesperson says distribution is still "a little bit up in the air.”

FAR WEST TEXAS — Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, vaccine makers have been working to find a drug that might allow the world to return to some sense of normalcy. This month, there have been a handful of promising breakthroughs that suggest vaccines against COVID-19 are now progressing quickly, but the timeline of vaccine delivery to the Big Bend is still uncertain.

While it may be many months before vaccines are widely available, the coming vaccines are a light at the end of the tunnel for many. Biopharmaceutical drugmaker Pfizer has announced a 95% effective rate in its vaccine trials. Moderna said its vaccine is effective, though it’s working to determine whether it stops the spread of the virus or prevents people who contract it from getting sick. AstraZeneca’s vaccine is exciting for many because it may prove to be inexpensive to produce.

At a Presidio County Commissioners Court meeting this month, Judge Cinderela Guevara informed commissioners and the public that the state’s health department has begun sharing details with her about how these vaccines might be distributed and a very rough timeline of when those immunizations might arrive.

One hiccup Guevara mentioned was that the first vaccine close to entering the market is Pfizer’s, which needs to be stored at nearly 100 degrees below 0 Fahrenheit to be effective. It’s also planned to ship in batches of 1,000.

For the rural and under-resourced area of the Big Bend, shipping a drug long distances through the desert to places without extreme cold storage could ruin the drug’s effectiveness. And because of a low population count, the Big Bend area is not likely to get shipments of the Pfizer vaccine since it comes in such large batches.

“Those will go to large hospitals and medical practices that can use those vaccines in big batches at a time,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. While the area has thousands of residents, the initial shipments are likely to only be used for emergency response personnel and hospital workers – and the Big Bend area doesn’t have 1,000 of those.

But Van Deusen said the “good news” for this region is that the drug by Moderna stays stable at refrigeration temperature for 30 days. “It may be the vaccine more suitable for rural areas or those without that population density and big hospital infrastructure,” he said.

The DSHS spokesperson said most importantly, the timeline for drug distribution is still “a little bit up in the air.” In the early stages, drug supplies will be limited. “They’ve started making vaccines, but it takes a while to ramp up production so everyone who wants a vaccine can get one,” Van Deusen said. The earliest estimate county officials provided was that a vaccine could begin delivering in December, but it’s uncertain whether any of the earliest shipments would come to the Big Bend.

With limited availability, the county and DSHS have outlined a prioritized list of who will receive the vaccines. First, healthcare providers and first responders, then, the elderly, medically vulnerable and frontline workers, and finally, the general population.

In preparation, Gary Mitschke, Presidio County’s emergency management coordinator, is working hard to get the county’s medical providers “pre-registered” with the state to receive the vaccine. Without pre-registration, “they won’t be sending the vaccine out to our area,” he said.

While DSHS is not responsible for distributing the vaccines, the state agency has formed a group of people from inside and outside of their organization who will be advising and making recommendations on how to distribute the vaccines in Texas.

“How it works is, we’ll hear every week from the CDC the amount of vaccines coming to Texas, the different vaccines that are coming,” said Van Deusen. “With the advice of the expert vaccine panel, we’ll tell the CDC where to send it and how much.”

Pfizer will ship directly, while the CDC will distribute the other drugs. Those shipments will go to the registered vaccine providers, like the ones that Mitschke is currently working to sign up. According to Van Deusen, those can be hospitals, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, rural health clinics or correctional facilities.

DSHS has so far enrolled 3,100 providers in 217 counties, “but certainly there’s still time” for others to get registered, according to Van Deusen. “We want to make sure the state’s covered geographically and in all different types of communities.”

Still, Van Deusen stressed that vaccines aren’t going to be widely available yet. “It’s going to be down the road for most people. Hopefully we’ll start to see some doses this year for frontline health workers. Manufacturing will ramp up and we’ll move out from there into the population.”

Judge Guevara said officials have estimated the drug will not reach the general public “until spring or maybe even the summer.”

Even after the vaccine becomes widely available, some, like Presidio EMS Director Malynda Richardson, are hesitant to talk about a return to normal. “Even if we get the vaccine, it doesn’t mean COVID is over,” she said. “For a vaccine to be effective and work, you have to have a significant percentage of the population who takes that vaccine.”

Aside from her estimate that the Big Bend region is “down the line of priorities,” below larger metropolitan areas, Richardson said the Big Bend has “people who are hesitant to take a vaccine, especially this one.” Despite that, Richardson said, “If I have a doctor telling me it would be a good thing to take this vaccine, I’d do it.” Richardson listed her own personal pre-existing conditions, age and the risk of exposure that comes from working in EMS as reasons to take the vaccine.

Some of the vaccines that are likely to hit the market, like Pfizer’s and Moderna’s, also require two dosages, meaning someone would get the first shot, wait a period of time, get a second shot and then wait additional weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective. If not followed through on, some may enter the general population feeling safe, but not actually experience the effects of the drug.

While the drug companies push forward to get vaccines to the market, DSHS’ Van Deusen warned that it will be “some months into the next year” before vaccines are available “at every doctor’s office and corner pharmacy.”

“We don’t get to say: ‘January 1, doses of the vaccine come out, boom we’re done with COVID.’ It doesn’t work that way,” Richardson said. “We really need to be prepared to continue taking precautions: wear the mask, social distance, protect the people around you.”