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Everyone age 16 and older, regardless of occupation or health status, will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Texas starting March 29, state health officials said Tuesday.
The Texas Department of State Health Services is still asking providers to prioritize appointments for people who are 80 and older, and to prioritize walk-ins from anyone in that age group who shows up without an appointment. The vaccines are not limited to Texas residents, and citizenship is not a requirement for the vaccine.
“We are closing in on 10 million doses administered in Texas, and we want to keep up the momentum as the vaccine supply increases,” said Imelda Garcia, DSHS associate commissioner for laboratory and infectious disease services and the chair of the state's Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel.
Until now, eligibility for the vaccine was mainly restricted to a few groups: health care workers, people ages 50 and older, those with certain underlying health conditions who are 16 or older, and employees of schools and day care centers. Texas began receiving vaccines in mid-December.
The vaccine is still in short supply as the announcement makes about 22 million people eligible on Monday. The state has been allocated more than 14 million doses since distribution began in December — far short of the supply needed to fully vaccinate everyone right away.
As of Tuesday, Texas had administered more than 9.3 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine. More than 6 million people have received at least one dose, and more than 3 million have been fully vaccinated, according to state health officials.
On March 10, the statewide mask mandate was lifted and businesses were allowed to go back to 100% capacity, even as health experts cautioned that Texans should not let their guard down as emerging variants threaten another potential spike in cases. New coronavirus cases and hospitalizations are at lows not seen since October, according to state health figures.
Texas health officials have been grappling over whom to include in each new eligibility group, under pressure from public-facing workers such as grocery store employees, restaurant staffers and transportation workers whose jobs put them at higher risk of contracting the virus than those who work from home.
Meanwhile, counties are attempting to ramp up vaccinations for communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and appear to be behind white residents in getting the vaccine.
While local governments are coming up with creative ways to address the inequities in the distribution, the state is “still struggling with that” and opening up the eligibility doesn’t address that problem, said Kazique Prince, interim executive director for the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity and a policy adviser for Austin Mayor Steve Adler.
In Austin, for example, vaccine locations have been added to the areas more accessible to communities of color, and the city has engaged the help of Meals on Wheels to reach more residents, he said.
But the state still has work to do, he said.
“Economics will play into this whole situation, where folks who are less able to access the resources are going to have a harder time getting it,” Prince said. “The concern I still have is how do we meet the demand in an equitable way, and right now I think we’re still struggling with that.”
By eliminating the age restrictions, there is the potential to vaccinate more Black and brown residents, said Adewole Adamson, an assistant professor at The University of Texas at Austin Dell Medical School. On average, white people tend to live longer, while younger generations have higher proportions of Black and Hispanic people.
“At every age level, there’s a disparity in outcome associated with getting the virus,” he said. “Folks of color are [still] at risk and we should prioritize their access to the vaccine.”
Health experts have said that between 70% and 90% of Texans must be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity and stop the spread of the virus. Texas has about 29 million residents, nearly a quarter of whom are under 18. Of the three vaccines available, only the two-dose Pfizer vaccine is available for ages 16 and up. The others, manufactured by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, are available for ages 18 and up.
President Joe Biden recently directed states to make the vaccine available to all adults by May 1. Several states have already opened their eligibility to all adults or announced plans to do so soon.
The state is also launching a website next week for people to sign up for vaccines at public health centers and state-run clinics. The Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler will alert participants to upcoming events and available appointments. For those who do not have access to the internet, the state will also be creating a hotline for appointments by phone, officials said.
Some counties, including Brazoria and Galveston, responded by immediately inviting anyone 16 and older who wants the shot to sign up on local waiting lists now.
“We want to make sure that people sign up and are ready to get vaccinated as our supply increases and state guidelines are updated,” said Dr. Janak Patel, director of health care epidemiology and infection control for the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, which has administered about 150,000 doses. “Signing up now means that you are already on the list when the criteria are changed to allow more people to be vaccinated.”
Marissa Martinez contributed to this report.
Disclosure: The University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.