Walker County providers gearing up for surge in vaccine demand

Michelle Wulfson, The Huntsville Item, Texas
·6 min read

Mar. 28—As Texas closes in on 10 million administered doses of the COVID-19 vaccines, health care providers are expecting a surge in demand as eligibility opens to all adults state-wide.

On Monday, COVID-19 vaccinations will be available across Texas to anyone over the age of 16, if receiving the Pfizer shot, or 18, if receiving the Moderna or Johnson & Johnson shots. The announcement came on the heels of President Joe Biden recently calling for states to make the vaccine available to all adults by May 1 in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.

"If you look at what we've seen in the community and what we've seen nation-wide, is if you vaccinate the younger people, the spread of the disease tends to go down," said Dr. Lane Aiena, family practitioner at Huntsville Family Medicine.

Individuals ranging from 20 to 49 years-old make up the largest percentage of confirmed cases across the state, and while they may be less likely to face serious reactions or death from the virus, being vaccinated will lessen the spread to those who are more susceptible.

As Texas counties will be ramping up their vaccine intake next week to meet the increase in eligibility, Huntsville Family Medicine is still expecting to receive its typical 1,000 doses. Compared to surrounding rural areas, it's an impressive amount, according to Aiena, who has led the fight to bring vaccines to Walker County in the first place.

Texas has come under criticism for largely trailing behind the rest of the nation in making vaccines eligible to its citizens, and its rural areas, like Walker County, have fallen even further behind due to not receiving allocations or not having even the resources to distribute them. While the state focuses on supplying metro hubs, the task of taking care of rural outliers has fallen on local heroes stepping up to the task of advocating for their communities, lest they be left behind.

"It was very frustrating how few allocations Walker County got, and I've had to advocate at the state level with the DSHS itself, I've worked directly with our senator's coordinator office and I've worked with representative Baile's office. It has been day and night work for three months straight to get to where we are and it has been very time consuming and very difficult," Aiena said.

"I have a full time practice to take care of, we're dealing with the worst pandemic in 100 years and on top of that, we had to beg for the shot," Aiena added.

As allocations first began making their rounds through Texas in late December, Huntsville Family Medicine had not made the initial cut, despite having applied for allocations as soon as the state's waitlist opened in October.

"I've seen what COVID has done to my patients and my patients' families, and when that shot was released, there was hope, we all were hopeful, excited, and the day came and went and we didn't have any shots," Aiena said.

Disheartened by the fact that the area was largely undersupplied, with H-E-B and Brookshire Brothers having received just a few allotments, Aiena was inspired to advocate to bring more shots to the area.

Aiena worked with news sources, the Texas Academy of Family Physicians and the Texas Medical Association, in addition to DSHS and political offices, to fight for vaccine allocations. His efforts finally payed off just in time for the new year, brining in just 300 allocations of the Moderna vaccine for Huntsville Family Medicine.

"It was very frustrating that rural communities didn't get the allotments we wanted, but I'm very thankful that Walker County is starting to get the shots that they deserve and need," Aiena said.

Once vaccines were allocated to the county, Aiena felt a responsibility to make sure that they made it to the community. He worked to spread information about the vaccine and arranged vaccination events with Huntsville Memorial Hospital and the Walker County Office of Emergency Management at the clinic and the Walker County Fairgrounds.

The HFM, HMH and OEM leaders had hoped to turn the fairgrounds into a designated vaccination hub and submitted a plan with the state, however, focusing on the hub concept for larger metro markets where thousands could be distributed in a day, Texas has ceased hub approval at this time. Instead, the state has focused more on making it easier for local providers like HMH and HFM to procure vaccines. As such, HMH will move from distributing the Moderna vaccine, which requires two doses, to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson. Huntsville Memorial Hospital CEO Steve Smith believes that from a logistics standpoint, the one-dose option will be better for a smaller community with limited resources. Huntsville Family Medicine will continue to offer the Moderna vaccine, while gauging the demand of the public as to which vaccine they prefer.

"I think as the pool of people gets younger, we're going to see the demand switch from Moderna to the one-shot Johnson & Johnson. So in anticipation, I've considered switching all of our allocation to Johnson & Johnson, but we still want to keep some Moderna on hand," Aiena said.

While Johnson & Johnson's vaccine touts the benefit of a one-and-done method, it's efficacy level has raised questions among many. Demonstrating only 66.3% effectiveness in clinical trials, it falls short behind Moderna, which showed a 94.1% efficacy rate in its clinical trials. However, it is difficult to compare the two, given that each vaccine uses a different technology to protect against the virus, and was tested for different outcomes and under incomparable circumstances.

"So far, the data shows that it's still very effective at keeping people out of the hospital and preventing death, so especially in my younger and healthier patients, I think that a one-shot is a great alternative. It helps the events be just a one-time event, it helps the patient not worry about following up, so I think that in certain situations, it's great, and honestly, whichever shot you can get at this point is the right one," Aiena said.

While both HMH and HFM will continue to offer vaccinations at their own facilities, they will continue to work together in bringing vaccines to the Walker County Fairgrounds as an unofficial vaccination hub for the area. Vaccination events for Walker County can be found at www.walkercountyvaccinate.com. Elderly patients 80 years and older will still be prioritized at vaccination events, regardless of having an appointment or being a walk-in.