Texans celebrated on Tuesday after the state expanded coronavirus vaccine eligibility to people 16 and older regardless of health status. Anyone can now sign up for the vaccine starting Monday, but Dallas County officials are still using a vulnerability index to determine who’s next in line.
Even though the state’s vaccination effort is ramping up, some experts say scrapping distribution guidelines could save both money and lives.
It made sense to prioritize at-risk individuals when vaccines were still scarce, but now vaccine production is “really rolling,” said Alex Tabarrok, an economics professor at George Mason University. Officials would be wise to adopt a more laissez-faire approach moving forward.
“We ought to be doing even more for COVID, and we want to get [the vaccine] out as widely as possible,” Tabarrok told the Observer.
Hierarchical tiers have limited vaccine distribution from the get-go, with county and state health departments using guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a touchstone. But as the number of fully vaccinated people continues to climb, some old restrictions are still in place. Now, critics warn that a well-intentioned effort to safeguard society’s vulnerable populations could backfire.
If it were up to him, Tabarrok would have given the green light for unrestricted distribution a bit sooner, but the main constraint was vaccine production itself. Now that three vaccines have gained approval — with more to follow — the biggest issue is time.
Thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars in GDP could be saved if the country vaccinated for COVID at the same rate as the flu, Tabarrok wrote in an article on the economic blog Marginal Revolution. As of Wednesday afternoon, the U.S. tallied 541,289 deaths, according to the CDC; 46,558 were Texans.
The U.S. administers 3 million shots per day at the height of flu season, so the country should be doing more to tackle the coronavirus, Tabarrok said. Health officials could use pharmacies and HMOs to expedite the process, especially now that the easy-to-store Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available.
From now on, there won’t be as much of a constraint on vaccine supply, Tabarrok said.
“We just want to go as fast as possible, and to do that, you need to open it up to more delivery routes,” he said. “Now that we have the quantity of vaccines, we want to go quick.”
Most younger people don’t have the same health risks but can still transmit the virus, making it all the more urgent to hasten vaccine distribution, Tabarrok said. It would also benefit the broader community to vaccinate perfectly healthy bar-goers, whose outings may in turn accelerate transmissions.
North Texas could reach herd immunity in early summer, said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. To do that, the number of vaccinated residents combined with the number of people who have caught COVID would need to hit 80%.
Jenkins said the county will also race against the clock as it pushes for herd immunity; the only way to get there is to vaccinate the recently recovered before their immunity wanes.
Meanwhile, Jenkins is calling on the state to return the county's full vaccine allocation, which was slashed late last month.
“The goal is to get every Texan vaccinated, but the key to doing that is to have shots,” Jenkins said. “And right now the state’s been diverting shots from Dallas County. We need that to stop.”
Some Texans were becoming discouraged by how long the distribution process was taking, said Dr. Erin Carlson, an associate clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Innovation at the University of Texas at Arlington. So when she heard the state was expanding access, Carlson was “elated.”
This announcement was a morale booster for Texans who are eager to return to life as they used to know it, Carlson said. The move was also an important step to expanding availability and access by leveraging the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, which is a collaboration between pharmacy networks and U.S. and state governments.
Excess vaccines in pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens are useless if eligibility remains narrow, she added. Plus, communities tend to trust their local pharmacies more than they do the county and state health departments, which could play a role in persuading the vaccine-reluctant to sign up.
It’s critical to get vaccines in the hands of local pharmacies, Carlson said. Moving forward, the state's expansion could allow for a smoother rollout; someday, people may be able to request a COVID-19 vaccine the same way they would a flu shot.
“There’s a new day, it’s coming, and this announcement makes that clear,” she said. “It has illuminated the light at the end of the tunnel — a very dark COVID tunnel that we have been walking through.”
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