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Some rural doctors celebrate, others disappointed in distribution of Moderna vaccine

Before Christmas, more than 150 counties in Texas will receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

AUSTIN, Texas — Starting Monday, more than 150 counties in Texas will receive allotments of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. 

In the initial rollout of the Pfizer vaccine, only 34 counties received doses because of the requirements for storing it. The Moderna vaccine's storage requirements are more feasible for most hospitals and doctor offices, allowing for rural areas to obtain doses.

"This is what we need to have access in our smaller and more rural communities," Dr. Emily Briggs, a family physician in New Braunfels, said. "Our physicians are on the same front lines that the physicians and nurses and others are on in the big cities. In fact, sometimes even more so because our PPE is more limited out here."

RELATED: 'No more shutdowns,' Gov. Abbott said during vaccine distribution announcement

In Huntsville, north of Houston, Dr. Lane Aiena said he was using PPE leftover from Hurricane Harvey at the start of the pandemic. He said he's "thrilled" the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorized the Moderna vaccine for emergency use.

"Especially once the Pfizer vaccine didn't come here, there's a lot of doom and gloom in the office, a lot of pessimism," Dr. Aiena said. "We're really excited that at least we're on the list."

Three locations in Huntsville will receive the Moderna vaccine: two pharmacists and a Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) center. Dr. Aiena said his patients are nearly on top of him to administer the vaccine to them.

"Especially in my older, more vulnerable population, 'When we get the vaccine, you're going to call me, right? You've got my number. You're going to call me? Call me the day of. I'm coming. I'll drop everything,'" Dr. Aiena joked. "They are so excited. I mean, they – if I don't call them personally from my cellphone the second I have my hand on it, I think I'm going to get a grumpy email."

Not every doctor or hospital in Texas can say they are on the list to receive a vaccine. In Dawson County, only one location will receive any COVID-19 vaccine during this second allocation: the TDCJ center. About an hour south of Lubbock, the town of Lamesa did not receive any of the initial allotment of vaccines.

RELATED: Smaller hospitals in rural Texas struggle to find beds for critical COVID-19 patients

"I had hoped that with how much we have advocated for our community and for our town and all the phone calls that all of us have made trying to get the [Department of State Health Services] to see us and to hear us, I thought surely that we would be on that list yesterday," Dr. Eileen Sprys said. "I was in total disbelief to see that, yet again, we weren't."

Dr. Sprys is one of four physicians at Medical Arts Hospital in Lamesa. The hospital serves a community of 13,000 people. According to Dr. Sprys, the hospital only has one respiratory therapist

She added that because of the lack of staffing, if one person gets sick or can't come into work, that means everyone else on staff shares an even greater load than urban hospitals that have more staffing.

"Respiratory therapists are critical, critical in a pandemic that involves the lungs because our respiratory therapist, they give the breathing treatments, they manage the ventilators for the most part," Dr. Sprys said. "They manage oxygen supplementation, they manage BiPAPs, CPAPs, all of that. So they're critical, you can understand, for a pandemic that involves the respiratory system."

Dr. Sprys said the State passed by Lamesa's hospital for the Pfizer vaccine because Medical Arts did not have an appropriate freezer to hold the vaccines. According to the doctor, the hospital was able to pull together money to get an appropriate freezer nearly a month before Pfizer was given an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) from the FDA.

"We've been working our, our tails off to make sure that our communities are taken care of, and we have fought to get us the resources for our patients since March," Dr. Sprys said. "To use the excuse that, 'Well, you don't have that and geographically it just doesn't make sense, logistically, it won't work out.' Rural hospitals, we have been jumping through hoops, brainstorming, doing every single thing we could possibly think of to take care of our patients. So, the excuse that that just logistically wouldn't work? No. Rural hospitals, we have made things work."

According to Gov. Greg Abbott, more than 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be delivered to Texas hospitals by the end of December. 

Briggs's family clinic is slated to be the only family medicine center to receive the vaccine in Comal County in this allocation. In neighboring Guadalupe County, Dr. David Rider in Seguin is excited to finally see the vaccine.

"I was telling my son yesterday that it felt like Christmas came early and it was a surprise," Dr. Rider said. 

Dr. Rider has been working with his patients to talk pros and cons of taking a COVID-19 vaccine at all, whether it's Pfizer or Moderna.

"As this pandemic gets worse and there's more and more COVID-19 and your risk of getting COVID-19 increases, then the chance of harm is even outweighed more by the chance of benefit," Dr. Rider said.

He also noted even after people receive a COVID-19 vaccine, they should continue wearing a mask because the pandemic is not over.


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