Health experts address inequities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution

Experts are claiming minority and border communities are being left behind.
Published: Mar. 1, 2021 at 10:24 PM CST
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LAREDO, Tex. (KGNS) - Two and a half months have passed since the state of Texas began allocating vaccines to cities and counties.

In that time, the Laredo Health Department has administered 41,470 first dose vaccines, according to Health Director Richard Chamberlain’s update at Monday’s City Council meeting.

Experts say that number is low, and it’s low for a reason.

Three federally-run mass vaccination sites were announced last month in Houston, Dallas and Arlington with an expectation of administering 10,000 vaccines per day combined.

Large cities with large populations, and none are on the border. Experts claim minority and border communities are being left behind.

“The border has been the bastard child of this state,” said Dr. Ricardo Cigarroa.

Dr. Cigarroa is an interventional cardiologist and leader in the COVID-19 effort at Laredo Medical Center, some even calling him the Dr. Fauci of the south.

He’s been vocal about what he views as an inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine.

Dr. Cigarroa says other areas similar in size, such as Lubbock County, are getting more than double the amount Laredo is.

“One would like to think that it’s not discrimination. But it sure does appear (to be). It sure does smell like it, and in my book it is,” he said.

The three mass vaccination sites the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running received 21,060 for Dallas and Arlington each, and 42,120 for Houston, totaling more than 84,000 vaccines for the week of March 1.

This does not include the amount each city’s health department and other providers have received.

Meanwhile, the Laredo Health Department received a total of 5,000, an amount it has consistently received since the first week of allocations on Dec. 14.

Local city councilmembers, medical professionals and U.S. Congressman Henry Cuellar have been pleading for weeks with the state government to send more COVID-19 vaccines and help from the National Guard to distribute them.

As they wait for a response from Gov. Greg Abbott, a team of experts at the federal level has formed.

Dr. Octavio Martinez Jr. is one of 12 members and the only Texan of the newly-formed Biden-Harris COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force.

He agrees that a vaccine distribution inequity exists.

“Our Latino community and our Black community have been hit very hard,” said Dr. Martinez. “The closer one gets to the border, these inequities do become quite severe.”

The CDC distributes the vaccines each week to state governments based on population.

The Texas Department of State Health Services consults with the Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, which makes recommendations to the Texas Commissioner of Health, Dr. John Hellerstedt, who makes the final decision on that week’s distribution to local areas.

Rather than basing the allocation off of population size, or number of medical professionals in an area, Dr. Martinez suggests looking to where the need is greatest.

“A larger percentage of us are essential workers. A larger percentage of us are in a lower socioeconomic category,” he said. “So we are at greater risk, and we’re seeing it play out in being exposed to the virus.”

Dr. Martinez says no single person or political party is to blame.

However, Democratic officials including Rep. Henry Cuellar and local officials including Alberto Torres met virtually on Feb. 11 to demand action from Gov. Abbott.

Dr. Cigarroa, who also attended the meeting, says he has no doubt that the state government is responsible for the inequitable vaccine distribution.

“The virus has no politics. It doesn’t discriminate. It hits the young as well as the old. And as a result the distribution should be the same, but it’s not,” Dr. Cigarroa said.

In a virtual media call on Feb. 23, Imelda Garcia with DSHS says she has not seen any evidence of distribution inequities.

KGNS reached out multiple times to the governor’s office by email and phone but did not hear back.

Laredo’s Health Director Richard Chamberlain says he is hopeful the city will receive vaccines from Johnson & Johnson, the third company approved to manufacture the COVID-19 vaccine.

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