COVID-19 vaccine confusion on who is next as Texas starts next phase

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- As thousands of health workers and first responders continue to get the COVID-19 vaccine, there's a growing desire to understand how the rest of the public may finally get vaccinated.

"People are going to be hearing stories, and we're hearing them already," admitted Houston's health authority Dr. David Persse, of people who didn't seem like they met the criteria, but they got them from somebody, which adds to the frustration.

Dr. Persse made those comments as the City of Houston rolled out vaccines for its health care workers and firefighters on Monday. Both the health and the fire department received 3,000 doses each.

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Amy Wildt, a therapy dog volunteer for a local hospital, never expected to be considered a frontline worker. ABC13's Miya Shay asked fellow dog volunteer people and they too were surprised.

Wildt and her therapy dog, Margaret, have not stepped into a hospital since the pandemic began. So, she was surprised to get an email from the hospital offering her a vaccine. She was so surprised, in fact, she asked her doctor about it.

"She said, 'If someone's offering you the vaccine, you should take it,' because I felt like I shouldn't be in the first wave of people," said Wildt.

SEE ALSO: Memorial Hermann moves to 2nd phase in COVID-19 vaccinations this week

Her story isn't unique. While there's been no debate that doctors, nurses, and other first responders should get the vaccine right away, there's some wiggle room as to who qualifies as a health care worker in the state's tiered system.

"I would make the appeal that to the people who have the vaccine, and are giving the vaccine, you really need to stick to the priorities the state has set forward," said Persse, pointing out it's up to each hospital to follow the state's guidelines. But the state also says if you run out of people, you should move quickly to the next tier.

For example, Methodist Hospital established an internal tier system for distributing the vaccines it was allotted from the state. In a chart obtained by ABC13, Tier 1 within Methodist includes all frontline doctors, nurses, and staff, but also a category called key leaders. Tier 2 includes all remaining medical staff as well as security personnel. Tier 3 includes volunteers, employees working from home, as well as board members.

SEE ALSO: 8 million Texans fall in next COVID-19 vaccination group

"The differences between tiers of individuals are really within weeks," said Roberta Schwartz, executive vice president of Houston Methodist. Schwartz points out that Methodist has administered more than 15,000 vaccines, including many doses to health care workers outside of the Methodist system.

"We began vaccinating other frontline workers through the community last week. This includes EMS, school nurses, home health care workers. So, when you look at our numbers, that's not just employees," said Schwartz.

The city's 6,000 doses will go to health department employees and firefighters first. The city of Houston is also working to make sure all the school nurses are vaccinated, and other frontline workers who are not tied directly to a health care system.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said there's a sense of hope of the pandemic ending next year but "we still have a way to go."

SEE ALSO: Find out how many people may get a COVID-19 vaccine before you

"It's great to be a pioneer," said health department employee Robert Johnson, one of the first to get the vaccine.

Nursing homes and independent living facilities should also begin getting their vaccines this week. The nursing home program is managed separately by the federal government, with national pharmacy chains like CVS and Walgreens sending staff to vaccinate residents.

H-E-B, meanwhile, is currently vaccinating health care workers who are not part of an already established hospital network. If you are a health care provider, you can contact H-E-B to see if you qualify.

During Monday's briefing, Turner announced that this week the Houston Health Department reported 765 new cases of COVID-19 in Houston. Compared to last week, Turner added the city's COVID-19 positivity rate is now up to 11.6% compared to the previous week's rate of 11.2%

While the vaccine is a sign of hope, Turner is reminding others to continue washing their hands, wearing a mask and practice social distancing, especially with New Year's Eve celebrations this week.

"I do want to caution people not to engage in traditional celebrations for New Year's Eve," Turner said. "Until we get more people are vaccinated, I simply want to remind people to be mindful of behavior and gatherings."

The arrival of the Moderna vaccine also means health care officials at Memorial Hermann can transition to Phase 1B of the Texas Vaccine Allocation Guiding Principles, allowing them to treat more people who weren't a priority during Phase 1A.

The phase priority expands to anyone over the age of 65 and to people with at least one chronic medical condition.

Turner added they hope to vaccinate more people beyond the health department, including waste management workers and police officers.

Persse also urged those who qualify to get the vaccine to take advantage of and get vaccinated when they are contacted about it.

"This is the beginning of the end. We still have a lot of work to do," Persse said. "I would like to encourage everyone who is eligible to get COVID-19 to get vaccinated. This is going to help you personally because it's going to protect you."

Persse reminded the public that when someone gets infected, they run the risk of getting very ill and infecting members of their own family.

"When your opportunity comes to get vaccinated, I would jump on it," he said.

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