As a dangerous winter storm pummels Texas, leaving millions without electricity and at least 10 people dead, public health officials are scrambling to save one of the most essential commodities: coronavirus vaccines.
Huge swathes of the country have been hit with unprecedented winter conditions, but in Texas, which largely runs on its own electrical grid, power outages have pushed officials to distribute soon-to-expire COVID vaccines as quickly as possible.
Texas was already facing a delayed weekly shipment of vaccines from the CDC on Friday in anticipation of the storm, said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. Several counties announced that vaccination sites would be closed for days amid the freezing conditions.
"No one wants to put vaccine at risk by attempting to deliver it in dangerous conditions," Van Deusen told BuzzFeed News. "Local providers have postponed vaccine clinics because it is not safe for people to be out across much of Texas."
In Harris County, the most populous in the state and one of the hardest hit by the storm, a series of failed power events left officials scrambling to distribute those vaccines just hours before they expired.
The building that stored the county's supply of Moderna vaccines lost power early Monday. Then, its backup generator failed, and the refrigerator storing the vaccines did not send out a warning that its temperature had risen above the level required to keep the doses viable, Lina Hidalgo, a county judge and emergency management director for Harris County, told BuzzFeed News.
"By the time we realized what had happened, we had about six hours or so to get the vaccine distributed. There were around 8,300 doses that we needed to distribute," Hidalgo said. "We could not ask individuals to drive anywhere because the roads were totally impassable."
Officials quickly came up with a plan to find facilities with a large number of people that had medical personnel who could administer the vaccine. The county ended up distributing doses to three hospitals, the Harris County Jail — which is nearing capacity and has seen COVID-19 outbreaks among detainees — and Rice University.
"The moment we have vaccines that are about to spoil, we can't say, 'No we’re not going to give it to these folks because they’re too young' or whatever it is. We've got to get them into arms," Hidalgo said. "Normally, when we have the benefit of time and planning we prioritize the older population, we make specific arrangements for vulnerable populations. But in this situation, it’s about making sure that those vaccines do not go to waste."
Officials later heard back from Moderna, which gave guidance on returning the vaccines to storage facilities.
Hidalgo called county officials' rush to distribute the vaccines during the storm a "miraculous effort."
"Everybody was in a mass scramble," she said. "Luckily, not a single dose was lost, not a single vial was wasted."
COVID-19 testing and vaccination appointments on Tuesday were similarly postponed in Austin, which continues to grapple with freezing rain. Austin Public Health officials did not respond to a request for comment, but on Monday said the vaccines in storage would not be affected by the power outages, the Austin American-Statesman reported.
But the statewide delay caused by the weather further hampers Texas's mass vaccination effort, which many residents are already frustrated with. The rollout was first hobbled by data issues that did not reflect actual vaccination rates, and as eligibility expanded, many elderly people found themselves ill-equipped to schedule appointments online.
Treacherously cold temperatures are expected to last until Friday in some parts of the state, but Van Deusen said the next shipment of vaccines was expected on Wednesday at the earliest.
Hidalgo said the biggest downside regarding the vaccines is that the storm will have delayed vaccine distribution by at least two days.
"That’s unfortunate," she said. "That’s time that we would have been distributing them."