In scattered vaccine rollout, some young folks are ineligible but inoculated

Health officials are taking care not to waste vaccines — even if that sometimes means giving shots to people in their 20s

MARFA — Marfa resident Becca Bright describes her chance vaccination against COVID-19 as “almost comical.” The local retail worker was working on Friday at a Highland Avenue shop when an out-of-breath Texas Department of State Health Services nurse ran through the door, asking if she and her coworker wanted to be vaccinated.

Bright, 23, is part of a growing number of residents who fall outside of the state’s current eligibility standards for COVID-19 vaccines but who have nevertheless received a shot against the virus, which has wreaked havoc across the country and region, killing at least 22 Presidio County residents.

Last week, the DSHS office held a two-day vaccination clinic, administering shots to Presidio law enforcement and first responders on Thursday, then to Marfa law enforcement, firefighters and other first responders on Friday. Those workers arguably fall under group “1A,” which includes “EMS providers who engage in 9-1-1 emergency services like pre-hospital care and transport,” according to state guidelines.

While firefighters and police might not fall in that group in big cities, things are different in Presidio County, according to Douglas Loveday, a spokesperson for Texas DSHS. “Because first responders in Presidio County do respond to medical 911 calls,” he said, “we were told last week that Judge [Cinderela] Guevara was helping them compile a list so those 1A personnel could be vaccinated.”

Gary Mitschke, the county’s emergency management coordinator, had compiled the list for Thursday and Friday — but as DSHS Marfa’s vaccinators gave out shots, the list dwindled, with some doses still on hand as they ran out of 1A names. Mitschke said it was difficult for himself or clinic workers to predict how many vaccines could be pulled out of vials. With Pfizer, a vial technically holds five doses but often allows for six, while a Moderna vial of 10 doses often produces 11 shots.

“We wanted to make sure we had a good list of all the first responders, and then we had some backup in case some didn’t show up, because the goal was to use all of the vaccine,” Mitschke explained. But that “backup” wasn’t a list of those who fall into the 1B category, which includes people who face higher risk of complications from COVID, including people over 65 or those with certain health complications like diabetes.

Instead, it was a list Mitschke requested from the city of Marfa, which named employees who help with critical infrastructure like water, sewer and gas services. While those types of jobs aren’t listed under 1A or 1B, Mitschke believed they were nevertheless important. One vaccine recipient from the backup group was 20-year-old Richard “Ricky” Guevara Jr., a city employee and son of Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara.

Soon, the county started receiving concerned calls about the news of the younger Guevara’s vaccination, but Judge Guevara stressed she had no role in getting her son vaccinated. If anything, she was surprised to learn her son had been vaccinated. “He told me he didn’t trust the vaccine,” she said. But she said his opinion changed after a coworker in the city’s water utility unit died of COVID.

Manny Baeza, the Marfa mayor, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday seeking more information on whether the city compiled a list of “critical” workers who fall outside the 1A and 1B categories but whom officials nonetheless hoped to get vaccinated.

Guevara’s husband, who’s 65 and has diabetes, was scheduled to receive a vaccine on Friday. The judge later learned her son Ricky was able to join him at the clinic, where he got his shot too.

“I am not here to use my office for personal gain,” she said in a phone interview this week. Instead, she said her son was part of a fortunate group of city employees and randomly selected service workers who lucked into getting a vaccine.

If essential city infrastructure workers aren’t vaccinated, “basic services within the city could be interrupted,” Mitschke said, explaining his rationale for offering vaccines to people who are young and potentially ineligible under state guidelines.

“We have these priority levels that we need to try and get these levels vaccinated, but when push comes to shove, everybody that gets vaccinated is a plus. We don’t want to waste vaccine,” Mitschke said. “It’s better to pull someone off the street, and that’s where the backup list comes into play.” The bottom line, he said, was that local judgement calls were necessary in determining who gets the shot and when.

Meanwhile, the closest state-designated “vaccine hub” to the tri-county in Pecos is asking those outside of 1A and 1B to be patient and wait for their turn. That hub is receiving 975 doses of Pfizer vaccine per week.

Brenda McKinney, the CEO of Reeves County Hospital in Pecos, said she has “had to come up with a process to try and reach out to people and get as many shots in arms as possible.” Their website, https://www.reevescountyhospital.com/, has become the landing page where 1A and 1B individuals can sign up. But even there, some ineligible patients are getting vaccine appointments.

In an interview this week, McKinney stressed that while their vaccines were available to tri-county residents that wanted to drive to Pecos, the hospital was not having issues filling its 975 or more appointments with 1A and 1B patients. On one occasion when they were short of patients last week, the hospital put out a call on the radio for people 65 or older, and were able to distribute 50 vaccines that day. Eventually, McKinney said, they will “get to a point in time where we’ll need to open it up, because we’ve saturated those two groups.”

But until then, “It’s really our job to try to get those folks in the 1A and 1B,” McKinney added. “Those are the folks that are going to be the most vulnerable if they do get COVID, so I really hope people will allow those groups to come in first.”

Still, she acknowledged there that some ineligible participants have slipped through the cracks. “I’m not going to waste vaccine, and if we need to grab some people and get them vaccinated we will,” she said. Like in Marfa, some ineligible vaccine recipients in Pecos were getting lucky.

Last Friday in Marfa, as 1A and city critical infrastructure workers were done being vaccinated, a few doses remained in an open vial, prompting a healthcare worker to run to Bright’s place of work. The DSHS employee rounded up four individuals, pulling just enough vaccine to inoculate each one that Friday night.

“When they crack that seal, the clock starts ticking,” said Loveday, the DSHS spokesperson. The state has its officially outlined priorities, but “if push came to shove” what matters most is getting the vaccine into someone’s — anyone’s — arm.

In the long term, Loveday said, “What we’re going for is herd immunity.” If a large part of the population were vaccinated, it would drastically decrease the chances the virus would have to spread uncontrollably, even to those who hadn’t gotten a vaccine. Ideally, Loveday said, only 1A and 1B Texans would currently be getting vaccinated. But his agency is adhering to guidelines that are in line with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “That vial gets punctured, and we’ve got to get [vaccines] in arms.”


Related