Since June 1, coronavirus vaccine distribution across Montgomery County has shifted from a hub-based model to one centered around physicians and clinics as demand begins to decrease.

The Montgomery County Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management on May 11 announced it would close the hub at Woodforest Bank Stadium in Shenandoah, with OHSEM Executive Director Jason Millsaps citing decreasing demand as the reason for doing so.

“Our providers are still doing first doses, but they are setting those up as clinics in their private facilities,” Millsaps said.

As of May 25, Millsaps said a total of 404,209 vaccines were administered across the county, with around 147,000 coming from the Woodforest Bank Stadium hub when the county took it over March 1.

When the county began managing operation of the vaccine hub, the estimated cost of running the facility was around $130,000 per month, paid for out of county funds.

Millsaps said while the hub closed June 1, there were 57 providers around the county receiving and administering coronavirus vaccines, most of which are pharmacies, hospitals and retail outlets such as Walmart and CVS.

Information from the Texas Department of State Health Services stated vaccine allocations no longer needed to be tracked as of May 10.

Providers are also now able to order vaccinations on a daily basis from DSHS, rather than waiting for weekly allocations which began in late December.

The path ahead

Ellen Pitcher, vice president of patient services for CHI St. Luke’s Hospital The Woodlands Hospital, said she is cautiously optimistic moving forward.

“The masks are coming off and our volume is down from what it was,” Pitcher said. “I was so excited people want the vaccine, it is such a blessing to us in health care.”

However, the decreased demand raised some concerns among county health officials.

Misti Willingham, public information officer for the Montgomery County Public Hospital District, said as of May 20 only about 33% of the county’s population age 12 and older had been fully vaccinated, making herd immunity—when a sufficient percentage of a population is immune to a disease to prevent spread—difficult to attain. By June 10, the number increased to nearly 41%, according to DSHS information.

“Some experts say 60%-80% of the population will have [to be vaccinated] to have immunity,” Willingham said. “It’s still unknown how long natural immunity lasts. ... The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] has said three months or so. ” During a health care panel at the Greater Magnolia Parkway Chamber of Commerce luncheon May 27, Millsaps said many people in the Montgomery County community have a conscientious objection to vaccines. “We have pretty much reached the peak of vaccines in the county,” Millsaps said.

Long-term efforts

Cole Kaleta, assistant vice president of operations and vaccine distribution with Memorial Hermann Health System, said long-term vaccination efforts are taking the form of grassroots campaigns to reach underserved populations.

“We are currently evaluating demand very regularly and pivoting our strategy to more community outreach,” Kaleta said. “Instead of having patients come to our sites, [we are] making them more available where they live and where they work.”Kaleta said demand for vaccines has dropped since April, and vaccination rates across the state indicate those who were actively seeking out a vaccination have already received their doses.

“Part of our effort is correcting that misinformation,” Kaleta said. “Vaccines are our best tool in overcoming the pandemic, and we want to keep on encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

Kaleta said he could not comment on whether achieving herd immunity was possible, but he said Memorial Hermann is encouraging those who want to get vaccinated to do so.“We have a multitude of offerings around the Greater Houston area for them to seek the vaccine,” Kaleta said. “They can walk into any of our clinics around Houston to get either a first or second dose.”

Pitcher said it is still important for people to know the vaccine is still available, despite the hub closure.