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Rio Grande Hospital Workers Turned Down the Vaccine. A Senator and a Sheriff’s Deputy Lined Up Instead.

So many workers at a hospital in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley declined the new COVID-19 vaccine that the facility offered doses to other medical workers in the region. It turns out, the vaccine ended up going to non-medical personnel as well.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. receiving a vaccination at the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance’s conference center in Edinburg, Texas, on Saturday.
State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. receiving a vaccination at the Doctors Hospital at Renaissance’s conference center in Edinburg, Texas, on Saturday. (Jason Garza/Texas Tribune)

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So many workers at a hospital in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley declined the new COVID-19 vaccine that the facility offered doses to other medical workers in the region. Many showed up, but so did a state lawmaker, a police officer and a sheriff’s deputy who weren’t on the state’s priority list for vaccination.

Hospitals across Texas began to receive the first batches of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine over the last several days. Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg, one of the Texas facilities hardest hit by the virus this year, received 5,850 doses of the vaccine.

State guidelines say these initial batches should go to front-line health care workers. But how the actual distribution works may look different from facility to facility as each interprets those state recommendations.

Dr. Robert Martinez, the DHR Health chief medical officer, said hospital officials prioritized employees considered in the first tier for a dose, like hospital staff who work directly with COVID-19 patients and long-term care workers. But administrators realized not enough people eligible for the vaccine were initially going to opt to get it, Martinez said.

“You start to see similar numbers across the country, all this mistrust and misinformation,” he said.

Initially, about 40% to 60% of people who answered a hospital survey said they’d get the vaccine, Martinez said. The lower-than-expected vaccine adoption rate was first reported by The Monitor.

People wearing masks waiting in a line outside of a hospital.
People waiting at the conference center to receive a vaccination on Saturday. (Jason Garza/Texas Tribune)

DHR Health didn’t want to waste the vaccine doses. After the first day of distribution, the hospital started to go “down the rung ... down the ladder a little bit,” Martinez said. Hospital employees called health care workers at other medical institutions — like hospitals, nursing homes, behavioral health facilities and anyone with workers on the front lines of COVID-19 — in neighboring cities and counties in the Valley.

The Rio Grande Valley is made up of Cameron, Hidalgo, Starr and Willacy counties. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 68,000 people in the predominantly Hispanic region have tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The more the merrier here as far as I’m concerned,” said Martinez, who emphasized “it wasn’t a free for all.” He said that he and other staffers told medical workers asking if they could bring relatives not to do so.

A photojournalist working for The Texas Tribune photographed several people in line for, or receiving, the vaccines in Edinburg on Saturday. One person was state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., — who is also a member of the state’s COVID-19 Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel that makes recommendations to the state health commissioner on which groups should be prioritized for vaccination.

Lawmakers are not eligible for the vaccine in this first round, unless they are a health care worker, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Lucio, a Democrat whose district includes the southeast portion of the Valley, is not a health care worker. In a statement Monday, Lucio said he was invited to take the vaccine by DHR after it explained to him that all eligible workers who wanted the vaccine received it — and the surplus would have to be administered or destroyed.

“I find it shocking that there is growing concern over the COVID-19 vaccine. I believe it is the key for our state to significantly reduce the number of infections and deaths, and I hope that by demonstrating to everyone that there is nothing to fear, I can help set the tone for getting vaccinated so that more Texans will accept the vaccine as it becomes available,” Lucio said.

The lawmaker also noted that because he is over the age of 65, he is in the next tier of people who health officials said will be next in line for the vaccine.

However, state health officials said Monday that Texas is weeks away from transitioning to the next phase of vaccine distribution for those over 65. Lucio declined to make any further comments and said he was tending to people he knows who have the virus. DHR did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Senior Patrol Deputy Tony Vargas of Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office receiving a vaccination at the conference center on Saturday.
Senior Patrol Deputy Tony Vargas of Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office receiving a vaccination at the conference center on Saturday. (Jason Garza/Texas Tribune)

The photojournalist also spoke to a man who identified himself as a Hidalgo County sheriff’s deputy. Law enforcement workers are not included in the DSHS first tier of people slated to get the vaccine.

A spokesman for the Hidalgo County sheriff’s office did not return a call for comment. Martinez said he wasn’t aware of any specifics but that law enforcement does sometimes assist hospital workers.

Van Deusen said in an email that vaccine providers “should follow the priorities set by the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel and DSHS.” In this first phase of distribution, “The priority is to vaccinate residents of long-term care facilities and front-line health care workers who have direct interaction with patients.”

The vaccine is not reserved exclusively for a vaccine provider’s employees, Van Deusen wrote. “We encourage providers ... to reach out to other health care workers in their community to help vaccinate them.”

Among those who received the vaccine this weekend was Rio Grande Valley pharmacist Danny Vela, who got a call Saturday from someone he knows at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance. Vela is not an employee of the hospital, but he was told vaccine doses were available if he wanted one.

So Vela, a pharmacist and co-owner of Lee’s Pharmacy in the Valley, and his daughter, a Lee’s pharmacy technician, headed to the conference center across the street from the hospital, where a large vaccination operation was underway in the lobby. Two hours later, both father and daughter had gotten a dose.

Vela felt “lucky and relieved,” he said.

Van Deusen said DSHS will follow up if concerns are raised about who receives a vaccine to make sure “everyone understands the priorities at this point and what the obligations are.”

It will be months before vaccines are widely available to most Texans. Health officials have said that people should continue wearing masks, washing their hands frequently and practicing social distancing. They also say that vaccinated people could still carry and spread the virus.

Hundreds of thousands of people nationally have been vaccinated since last week. But there have been some hiccups. Stanford Medicine residents who work in close contact with COVID-19 patients were left out of the first wave of staff members for the Pfizer vaccine. In their place were higher-ranking doctors who carry a lower risk of patient transmission, ProPublica reported last week. The hospital apologized and pledged to do better.

DHR Health handed out its last dose Sunday afternoon, Martinez said. His priority, with each new vaccine shipment, will be to offer it to any front-line, DHR Health medical workers who didn’t get it the first time. But he won’t wait too long before going to the next person in line.

“Every day that I store that vaccine in a freezer is another person, or another few people, that die,” he said.

Jason Garza contributed reporting.

Disclosure: DHR Health has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Update, Dec. 21, 2020: This story was updated with comment from state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr.

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Vianna Davila

Vianna Davila is a reporter with the ProPublica-Texas Tribune Investigative Initiative.

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