Elderly people start getting long-awaited COVID-19 vaccinations in Houston

Hospitals and medical providers in Houston began vaccinating patients who are senior citizens this week as the major public vaccination campaign for the first time extends past frontline workers.

About 3,000 people aged 75 or older are planning to get their first shots at Methodist Hospital this week. Memorial Hermann has scheduled nearly 5,000 of its medical group patients, who are at least 65. CVS launched an effective effort at long-term care facilities on Monday, hoping to eventually vaccinate 275,000 patients.

Each of these providers began vaccinating these residents this week, while similar plans are underway – though not so far – at MD Anderson, Baylor College of Medicine and Harris Health, among others. They all continue to vaccinate front workers as well.

“Many of us run the campaigns side by side,” said Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president of Methodist. “What we have found is that we can maximize the number of people who get through if we let them walk side by side.”

The expansions are the entry into the next phase of the vaccination plan of the state. The first phase 1A prioritized leading workers in hospitals, medical technicians, school nurses and others. Phase 1B includes elderly people over 65 and others older than 16 with certain high-risk medical conditions. These include cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, heart conditions, solid organ transplantation, obesity, pregnancy, sickle cell disease and type 2 diabetes mellitus.

The Texas Department of Health Services, which manages the distribution, remains in Phase 1A, but has led providers to start moving to new populations once they have reached all willing participants among the front-line workers. Yet they need to discuss capacity for front-line workers as they move on.

“Continue to prioritize Phase 1A as people are present in the group,” reads the guidance. “This will allow providers to prioritize appropriately while maximizing the maximum number of people vaccinated.”

According to city health officials, there are about 8 million people in the group of senior people and people at high risk. It involves collecting lists of suitable patients from different departments and designing systems to make contact with them, while balancing the systems with the current stock of vaccine and staff needed to deliver it. The need for a second shot about 30 days later complicates the scheduling efforts.

“None of us are set up to do mass vaccinations. We do not have these large open stadiums where we can bring in 50,000 people and vaccinate everyone at the same time, ”said dr. James McCarthy, chief physician at Memorial Hermann, said.

That hospital has more than 400,000 patients who will qualify in the category over 65. It began reaching out to a small group of patients who see the Memorial Hermann Medical Group for primary care. It’s a pool of about 70,000 people, McCarthy said, and they reached capacity before they could connect with anyone.

“It’s very exciting, but we’re just sticking our toes in the water. That’s the tip of the iceberg, ”McCarthy said. “It’s going to take time.”

There is probably also overlap. People who visit one doctor at Memorial Hermann and another at Methodist can receive two notices. Schwartz and McCarthy advised the people to come in where they can and to cancel outstanding appointments if they get a chance elsewhere.

“Wherever you can schedule, you have to schedule,” McCarthy said.

The state agency recommends residents contact their providers to see if they are eligible, but Methodist and Memorial Hermann officials said the calls overwhelm their systems. Both have designed outreach strategies that mean appropriate patients will hear from the hospital, not the other way around.

Methodist will continue to send text messages or voicemails to people who qualify in the coming weeks. Schwartz said they are working with a pool of 120,000 patients over 75 and plan to contact everyone. She said the hospital will move in the coming weeks to its next groups, 65 years or older and adults with certain health conditions.

CVS and Walgreens are also involved in the distribution, according to the state’s database of suppliers. They received large deliveries to focus on long-term and skilled nursing homes, Schwartz said.

CVS said it launched its long-term care program in more than 2,000 facilities on Dec. 28 and hopes to vaccinate 275,000 patients through the program.

The organization continues to focus on health care workers in the community.

The state said it hopes the vaccine will be available to the general public in the spring, according to a timeline that Schwartz and McCarthy are likely to reach as long as the stock of vaccines does not dry up.

About 146,988 people have been partially vaccinated in Texas since Monday, according to a Houston Chronicle analysis of state data.

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