Muñoz

With one drug maker already seeking authorization for the emergency-use of it’s COVID-19 vaccine, and another manufacturer expected to soon follow, hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley are preparing for the local distribution of the vaccine.

At Starr County Memorial Hospital, officials there are preparing to acquire the freezers needed to properly store the vaccine that was manufactured by the drug company Pfizer.

On Friday, the company became the first to submit an application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for an emergency-use authorization for their COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna, another drug maker, stated on Nov. 16 that they intended to submit an application for their vaccine in the coming weeks.

“We are getting ready with the refrigerators that we need,” said Thalia H. Muñoz, CEO and administrator of Starr County Memorial Hospital.

“We do have the refrigerators that are needed for the Moderna vaccine and we’re already in line to get the freezer for the Pfizer,” Muñoz said Friday. “The Pfizer vaccine requires a lot, lot colder refrigeration.”

In Hidalgo County, Doctors Hospital at Renaissance is already equipped with regular refrigerators for the Moderna vaccine and has two ultra-low-temperature freezers for the Pfizer vaccine, according to Dr. Sohail Rao, CEO and president of DHR Health Institute for Research & Development.

“We already have two minor safety ultra-low freezers because we have got a lot of research going on and we have ordered a third one which will be coming here in five days,” Rao said on Friday. “So we will have enough capacity to actually house the vaccine by Moderna and also by Pfizer.”

Mission Regional Medical Center, Knapp Medical Center and Harlingen Medical Center are expected to receive subzero freezers within the next few days, according to Kathleen Avila, a spokesperson for Prime Healthcare which owns the three hospitals.

“We will be following manufactures recommendations to ensure proper storage and distribution,” read a statement issued by Prime. “The manufacturer has allotted enough doses for our hospitals to vaccinate all employees willing and eligible.”

Rio Grande Regional Hospital in McAllen issued the following statement about their preparations for the vaccine:

“The CDC is the federal agency tasked with the rollout and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine and with input from the National Academy of Medicine they have identified priority groups, including healthcare workers, who will be among the first to receive the vaccine when it becomes available,” the statement read. “We are relying on guidance from the CDC and the government’s Operation Warp Speed initiative to finalize plans to safely administer COVID-19 vaccines to our frontline staff who choose to receive it when it becomes available.”

“Those plans are still being developed and validated internally, so we don’t yet have details to share.”

Before hospitals or other providers can get ahold of the vaccines, they must first register with the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) to enroll.

Muñoz said the Starr County hospital had already applied with the state and were awaiting approval, adding that the vaccine would likely be issued to certain areas based on COVID activity.

Rao similarly believed the density of COVID-19 would be a factor in the state’s “location formula.”

“We have a size-able number of patients who are positive for COVID who have not been hospitalized,” Rao said. “Obviously, we are not where Harris County or Dallas County are but there have been, in the Valley, a size-able number of patients who have become positive and are continuing to become positive.”

“So the idea that we will be among the first to get the vaccine, I think we will,” he added. “How many doses we will get is a separate issue; it will depend on how many doses the state gets and what their location formula is.”

Once the hospitals do receive the vaccine, Rao said they would follow state guidelines on how to distribute it.

Dr. Elizabeth Cuevas with DSHS Public Health Region 11, said during a news conference on Friday that health officials there were working with local stakeholders on vaccination planning and needs.

Region 11 consists of 19 counties in South Texas, from north of Corpus Christi to Laredo and down to Brownsville.

“We’re working with our state partners, as well, to address all those planning concerns,” Cuevas added. “The governor’s executive vaccine allocation committee has been meeting this week and they are releasing their guidelines for the vaccine distribution in the coming days so we’re looking forward to that information to help us refine our plans.”

On which populations those guideline will prioritize, Rao said one could make predictions on that but those would just be assumptions.

“The hospital is very attune to the vaccination process,” Rao said. “It regularly vaccinates its own healthcare workers; we have an employee health department here.”

He added that while they are prepared for vaccinating their employees, it is not generally expected that hospitals will become the vaccination centers for the community. Instead, clinics will likely be where most people will receive the vaccine.

For distribution on that larger scale, for the general public, DSHS is still trying to enroll providers, according to Cuevas.

“We are recruiting providers, especially non-traditional providers, and providers that serve rural and maybe frontier areas of our region so that they can be enrolled and trained to give the COVID-19 vaccine in these areas,” Cuevas said.

“In the case that we don’t have enough providers,” she added, “the state is working on a plan and our region is training up our own nurses to be able to ensure that all areas of our entire 19-county-region will be (able to administer) the COVID-19 vaccination when it becomes available.”

More information and enrollment is available on the DSHS website: enrolltexasiz.dshs.texas.gov