As health officials worked to administer a limited supply of the vaccine to the area’s most vulnerable, officials have confirmed an even more infectious strain of the coronavirus that originated in the United Kingdom has been identified within the county, Director of Public Health Matt Richardson told commissioners Feb. 9.
The existence of this U.K. variant and other quick-spreading strains makes an effective vaccination effort even more urgent, Richardson said.
“We have to redouble our efforts on prevention, and we have to keep up the great work on vaccination and get to herd immunity as soon as we can,” Richardson said.
The mass drive-thru clinics at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth this month were part of an effort by Denton County’s public health department to significantly scale up its weekly administration of vaccines.
“The ability to vaccinate 10,000 individuals in one day is a monumental task,” Richardson said in a statement. As of Feb. 11, only people in the state’s priority groups were allowed to sign up for the county’s waitlist. Groups currently eligible for the vaccine include health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, people age 65 or older and people age 16 or older with certain chronic medical conditions.
State officials still must decide which groups will come next on the eligibility list for the vaccine.
Vaccines in schools
With the county’s vaccination campaign underway, other major institutions are weighing options to help administer the vaccine.
In Lewisville ISD schools, the pandemic has created staff disruptions and prompted district officials to inquire about obtaining vaccine doses for its employees.
Superintendent Kevin Rogers said Feb. 8 that LISD has started to look into the possibility of vaccinating its teachers and staffers when the state expands the pool of eligible recipients.
“My promise to the staff is we’re doing everything we can to try to expedite that system,” Rogers said.
However, teachers are not yet eligible to receive a dose from the state’s limited vaccine supply unless they qualify under current criteria.
Rogers’ remarks were part of a presentation to trustees that painted a clearer picture of how the pandemic has interfered with some of the district’s in-person instruction efforts.
Since early September, district staff members have been placed under quarantine more than 1,200 times, Rogers said. While staff members do not have to test positive for the virus in order to be placed under quarantine, the district can require them to do so as a precaution if they may have been exposed.
Two dozen employees have resigned because of the pandemic, and more than 100 are working remotely because of a medical condition, he said.
Substitute teacher fill rates are also down year over year, from 86% in the previous school year to 73% in 2020-21, Rogers said.
However, before institutions such as LISD can vaccinate their employees, the state must work through vaccinating those people in the highest-risk groups.
A slow start
Denton County got off to one of the slowest starts of any highly populated Texas community with its vaccination effort, but the county’s clinics have expanded in recent weeks.
Heading into the first Texas Motor Speedway clinic, Denton County residents had received roughly five vaccine doses per 100 people age 16 and older, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services. These numbers include first doses and second doses of the vaccine.
However, after a couple weeks at the Texas Motor Speedway clinics, that number jumped to nearly nine doses per 100 people on Feb. 10. This pace ranked Denton County 215th among Texas’ 254 counties and last among the 36 counties in the state that have at least 100,000 residents age 16 or older.
Richardson acknowledged the need for a quicker pace in a conversation with county commissioners at the end of January. He said the county had success with the efficiency of its early drive-thru clinics and that he expected they would be able to scale them up effectively as the county receives larger batches of vaccines from the state.
“We’re not where we want to be, but it’s getting better,” Richardson told county commissioners at the time.
Providers are not required to administer vaccines to people within the county. Even Denton County’s largest vaccination hub, run by its public health department, has had to keep its waitlist open to residents from outside the county as well. Roughly one in five vaccines administered by the county health department have gone to people who live outside Denton County, County Judge Andy Eads said Feb. 9.
The county is expected to continue to hold its clinics at Texas Motor Speedway for the foreseeable future, county spokesperson Dawn Cobb said. The county is seeking volunteers with medical and non-medical backgrounds to help administer the vaccine. Signups are available on the county website.