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Odessa’s Vaccination Hub Pulls Back On Expanding Vaccination Roll Out After State Officials Step In

Earlier this month, Odessa health officials announced they would extend vaccines to essential workers in industries like food service, energy, media and construction. But the move—which would have put the hospital ahead of Texas’ vaccination rollout—caught the attention of state officials.  

By Mitch Borden

For the past month, thousands of West Texans have waited in line, driving through an outdoor clinic in Odessa, to receive their coronavirus vaccines. 

When the vaccination site opened in late January, the clinic was offering vaccines to priority groups, as outlined by the state. More recently, vaccination efforts at the clinic—led by Medical Center Hospital—have been working so well that hospital leaders decided to expand vaccine eligibility in Odessa, bypassing the state’s current vaccination plan. 

But the state is now telling Medical Center officials they can’t go beyond Texas’ current vaccination plan, which so far only covers frontline workers, Texans older than 65 and those with certain chronic conditions.

In an interview with Marfa Public Radio, Medical Center’s Russell Tippin said the state’s top health official called him directly.

“Anytime your phone rings, as a hospital CEO, and it says Texas Department of State Health Services, it kind of makes you stop what you’re doing and pay attention to the call,” said Tippin.

On the other end of the line was DSHS commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt.

Hellerstedt was calling to talk about Odessa’s mass vaccination operation, Tippen recalled. He also wanted to make sure Medical Center wasn’t charging ahead of the state’s rollout plan for vaccinations. 

Tippin said Hellerstedt told him, “Keep doing what you’re doing, 1A and 1B is where [the state is] but do not waste any shots.” 

To Tippin, the message was clear: “Stay in 1A and 1B.” 

Currently, Texas’ vaccination plan only allows for groups 1A and 1B to get the COVID-19 vaccine. These classifications cover frontline workers, individuals with certain underlying conditions and people who are 65 or older. But, until Tippin received the call from DSHS, he and his hospital were preparing to expand their vaccination effort even further. 

For weeks, Texans have piled into their cars and have lined up at Ratliff Stadium where Medical Center has run its temporary drive-thru vaccination clinic. People from all over West Texas and beyond have driven to the center to receive their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

But, hospital officials noticed a drop in vaccinations, leading them to believe they’ve reached the bulk of individuals who qualify for a vaccine under the state’s current plan. So earlier this month, Tippin announced the hospital would open up vaccines to even more people, which would have officially begun this week. 

“Our time at Ratliff stadium is quickly ticking away...we have shots, we want to give them...we want to give as many as we can,” Tippin told reporters during a virtual press conference on Feb. 11. 

At the time, the hospital stated it would begin administering vaccines to essential workers specified under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended vaccine distribution plan — specifically, its definition for phase 1C. Under this phase, essential workers employed in industries like food service, the energy sector, media, public safety and construction would be eligible to receive the vaccine -- if they hadn’t already qualified under existing vaccination groups. 

Currently, Texas has not outlined, let alone authorized, who will get a vaccine in phase 1C of the state’s vaccine rollout. During the Feb. 11 press briefing, where Medical Center announced it would move on to 1C, Christin Abbott-Timmons, Medical Center Hospital’s chief nursing officer, told reporters when Medical Center was designated as a vaccination hub by the state, it was told to expand distribution when needed. 

“The communication was ‘Don’t just stop at 1B, if you feel like you’ve gotten the bulk of 1B move on.’ The same with 1A, because you’re never going to be able to identify and reach every single person and the goal is to get the shots out.” 

DSHS allows hospitals to distribute vaccines at their discretion, but only in specific situations according to Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the agency. 

“If there’s an issue with vaccine possibly spoiling due to power outages, they may vaccinate people outside the 1A and 1B groups so vaccine isn’t wasted,” Van Deusen wrote in an email to Marfa Public Radio. “That’s not the case for regular, planned vaccination efforts.”

According to DSHS, Medical Center Hospital has agreed to follow the state’s rollout plan rather than moving forward with the CDC’s 1C category. Tippin confirmed the move, saying the hospital would reign in its efforts to expand its vaccine eligibility, but also said his hospital would vaccinate anyone who shows up to its vaccination clinic, which he told DSHS.

“Shots in willing arms’ is kind of the motto of the state and us because sometimes we have people come in, you may have somebody in 1A or 1B and in their car is somebody who doesn’t fall into that category—well we inject those people because they are willing and there.”

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.