Lower Valley health care workers get their shots

HARLINGEN — Pam Frasier sighs as she waits for her 90-year-old mother and the staff at her mother’s nursing home to receive the coronavirus vaccine.

“It’s a huge relief,” Frasier, a travel agent for the U.S. military, said.

“I’m thrilled,” she said. “We no longer have to worry that people in constant contact with (nursing home residents) will bring it to them.”

In the Harlingen area, health officials will soon be vaccinating nursing home staffs along with their residents.

At Retama Manor Nursing Center, Administrator Jeff Tait said he expects vaccinations to begin early next month.

“We’re excited,” he said. “We have a lot of folks who want it now. We’re anxiously waiting.”

While about 90 percent of his staff wants to take the vaccine, about 10 percent have questions, Tait said.

“I saw lots of questions if you have health conditions that put you at higher risk — ‘I don’t know. I need to talk to my doctor,’” he said.

First week of vaccinations

In the Harlingen area, where Valley Baptist Medical Center serves as the distribution hub, officials vaccinated health care workers during the vaccine’s first week of the distribution, Josh Ramirez, the city’s public health director, said.

“The process has been smooth,” he said. “They’ve been able to vaccinate their staff — the frontline people.”

Now, officials are getting ready to begin vaccinating staff at nursing homes and home health clinics, he said.

“They’re on schedule,” he said. “They’re working as fast as they can.”

On Dec. 18, a day after Valley Baptist Health System received its first shipment of about 3,000 Pfizer vaccine doses, officials began the vaccination program, Jennifer Bartnesky-Smith, Valley Baptist Medical Center’s chief strategy officer, said last Wednesday.

So far, officials have vaccinated about 2,900 health care workers, she said .

“It is important to note that the initial doses of the vaccine are intended for health care workers and providers who may be directly exposed to COVID-19 while providing care,” she stated. “We are also working very closely with Cameron County Public Health to coordinate further vaccinations beyond health care workers in the days to come.”

While hospital officials declined to disclose the number of health care workers who have turned down vaccination, Ramirez said most have taken the vaccine.

“Most of the folks contacted have been receptive to receiving the vaccine,” he said. “It has not been a problem with accepting the vaccine among the medical community.”

However, he said, some have declined vaccination citing underlying health conditions.

“If a person has underlying conditions, they should consult with their physician — but that’s a small percentage,” Ramirez said.

In Willacy County, Frank Torres, executive director of the county’s Emergency Medical Service, and Dr. Mario Sanchez, the county’s health authority, are working with state health officials to coordinate the vaccine’s distribution.

“So far, medical personnel and people with direct contact to COVID are being vaccinated,” Torres said.

Vaccination phases

As part of the national program, officials will distribute the vaccine in phases throughout next year.

“While news of the vaccine is positive for our community, the availability of the vaccine itself, along with guidelines from the FDA and Texas Department of State Health Services, will determine when the vaccine is available to the various segments of the population,” Bartnesky-Smith stated. “Valley Baptist utilized the state guidelines to determine the types of individuals eligible to receive the vaccine in this initial round.”

During the distribution program’s first two-month phase, officials plan to vaccinate health care workers including those treating COVID-19 patients in clinics and nursing homes, Ramirez said.

“As we continue to participate in the vaccination process, we will be following the same state guidelines and moving down the list of individuals as we receive additional vaccines in the coming months,” Bartnesky-Smith stated.

As distribution expands, officials plan to work with national pharmacy store chains to administer vaccinations, Ramirez said.

During next year’s second quarter opening in April, officials plan to begin vaccinating the general public, Bartnesky-Smith said.

High-risk groups include those 65 and older, nursing home residents and those with underlying medical conditions, according to a Dec. 7 copy of the state’s distribution plan.

Among higher-risk groups are Hispanics, whose high rates of diabetes and obesity make them more susceptible to the virus, Ramirez said.

Ambulance crews vaccinated

Last week, Harlingen’s ambulance crew was wrapping up its vaccinations, Rene Perez, South Texas Emergency Care Foundation’s transport director, said.

“A large percentage has already taken it,” he said, referring to about 85 medics and dispatchers on his staff. “I haven’t heard of anybody who has declined it yet. Nobody’s reported any side effects.”

Perez said he didn’t take the Pfizer vaccine because he’s a volunteer in Moderna Therapeutics’ vaccine clinical trials at Centex Studies in McAllen.

“We’re working through the intricacies of getting the vaccine rolled out,” he said, referring to the overall distribution program.

From Willacy County, Torres and most of his ambulance crew lined up to take their vaccines at Valley Baptist Medical Center.

“So far, the side effects have been minimal,” Torres said, adding he’s felt no side effects. “Nobody’s missed work because of side effects.”

In about three weeks, his crew will come back to take the vaccine’s second dose, Torres said, referring to the 21-day interval between the first and second final dose.

Torres said three staff members didn’t take the vaccine “because of medical concerns or questions their personal physician had.”

‘Great tool to fight COVID’

Torres, Willacy County’s emergency management coordinator, said he’s urging residents without underlying medical conditions to take the vaccine.

“It’s a great thing that it’s here,” Torres said, referring to the vaccine, which boasts as high as a 95-percent effectiveness rate.

“As EMS director and emergency management coordinator for Willacy County, I would very strongly encourage everybody to take the vaccine unless your personal physician tells you it’s not a good idea. It’s a great tool we have to fight COVID. The only way we’re going to win the fight is to get 70 percent of the population vaccinated.”