State of Texas: ‘Hope in a syringe’ as state begins distributing vaccine

Texas Politics

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Thursday outside a UPS distribution center in northeast Austin that Operation Warp Speed is a “monumental medical miracle.”

Gov. Abbott said around 224,000 doses of the Pfizer-produced vaccine would be distributed in Texas the first week of availability. The governor expects more doses next week following the approval by the Food and Drug Administration of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine for emergency clearance.

“There will be well over a million people vaccinated in the state of Texas alone, just this month,” he said. “And those numbers will continue to increase as production continues to increase.”

Texans have played a significant role in the development of Moderna’s vaccine. Moderna worked with the University of Texas at Austin through the National Institutes of Health to use UT research on coronavirus spike proteins in this COVID-19 vaccine.

People from all over Texas participated in clinical trials for the vaccine, and the company’s “heat map” of participants for Phase 3 of the trial shows Texas with more participants than any other state.

Demographic data for the Phase 3 COVE study on Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccination as of Oct. 21, 2020. The state of Texas appears to be heavily represented in this study with around 400 participants. (Image from Moderna)

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Austin resident Rachel Elsberry participated in Phase 2 of the Moderna trial and believes she benefitted from doing so.

During Phase 2, participants were given either a placebo, a 50 microgram dose of the vaccine or a 100 microgram dose of the vaccine. Participants have not been told which shot they got, but Elsberry believes she got one of the vaccine dosages.

Elsberry was given her first shot in June and the second one 28 days later. Each time, she said she was observed for an hour afterward to see if she had any adverse effects.

Prior to getting the shot, she said she was tested for COVID-19 antibodies and didn’t have any. Elsberry said she has never tested positive for COVID-19 during the many times she was tested throughout the trial.

Rachel Elsberry of Austin participated in Phase 2 of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine trial. (Courtesy Rachel Elsberry)

Recently she got curious about whether she’d developed the antibodies and got tested privately, outside of the Moderna study. She said she tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, which she believes are from receiving the vaccine.

After Elsberry’s first shot in June, her arm was very sore at the injection site for several days. The day after her second shot, she said she felt sick and achy—symptoms which disappeared after some Tylenol and a nap.

“I’ll take those side effects any day of the week [rather] than contract a disease that could potentially kill me or make my life difficult for the rest of my life,” Elsberry said.

She participated in the trial through Benchmark Research in Austin and will continue to keep a diary and receive checkups for this trial through the summer of 2021. Moderna is still trying to learn more about the impacts of this vaccine over time and how long antibodies may last.

Elsberry said learning she had antibodies brought her to tears. She still plans to be cautious and wear masks but she feels a wave of emotional relief.

“I can’t describe what it feels like to have that anxiety level kind of gone,” she said.

Her experience with the vaccine trial has left her feeling very hopeful about the impact Moderna’s vaccine will have.

“I have called it hope in a syringe and that’s very much what I feel like it is,” she said.

Chris Van Deusen, the Director of Media Relations for DSHS, told KXAN while Texas is expected to receive the first shipments of the Moderna vaccine next week, some of those shipments could stretch into the following week depending on how shipments roll out at the federal level.

In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)

The Moderna vaccine does not have to be kept at ultracold temperatures as the Pfizer vaccine does. Van Deusen explained the federal government is working with McKesson Corporation to ship out Moderna and all the other vaccines.

While the Pfizer vaccine requires minimum orders of 975 doses at a time, the Moderna vaccine ships in batches of 100, which Van Deusen noted may make it easier to for smaller healthcare providers and more rural areas to use.

As COVID-19 cases in Texas reach record levels, roughly 1.3 million with nearly 25,000 deaths according to the Department of State Health Services COVID-19 dashboard, Gov. Abbott said Texas must use “every tool we have to reduce hospitalizations in the state.”

He said in addition to the vaccines, antibody therapeutic treatments produced by Regeneron and Eli Lilly need to “get off the shelf and get to people that need them.”

John Hellerstedt, M.D., DSHS commissioner, said the vaccines provide “a ray of light at the end of the tunnel.”

“These vaccines are proven safe and effective,” Hellerstedt said. “We’re seeing the power of what science can do, the power of our genius of the scientists and the people developing this vaccine.”

Gov. Abbott reiterated that he won’t authorize anymore business shutdowns due to the pandemic. He said it’s time to “put shutdowns behind us.”

“We need to focus on opening up businesses,” he said. “Every adult in Texas has the responsibility to follow the same practices as we continue to work our way out of this.  If they do that, we can contain COVID-19 while we continue the process of vaccinating our fellow Texans and continue to open up.”

Relief funds still unspent in Texas

Two weeks from a use-it-or-lose-it deadline, Texas still has $2 billion of federal coronavirus relief funds left to spend.

On Nov. 30, KXAN reported Gov. Greg Abbott had to spend $2 billion from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act by the end of December. A spokesperson for Abbott said on Wednesday the number hasn’t changed.

Abbott has been meeting with state agencies to determine how to spend the remaining CARES Act funds, according to his office.

“With $2 billion remaining of the original funding, the state will spend every dollar by the end of the year to ensure the health and well-being of all Texans,” said Renae Eze, Abbott’s press secretary.

Texas received $11.24 billion from the CARES Act in March. Cities and counties with a population greater than 500,000 automatically received a combined $3.2 billion under state law, leaving Abbott with $8 billion to spend by Dec. 30.

Abbott has faced criticism for not involving the state legislature in deciding how to use the federal funds, though Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, outgoing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and members of the Senate Finance and House Appropriations committees, have been part of the process.

In New Mexico, a special legislative session was held last month to determine how to spend the state’s remaining CARES Act funds.

Lawmakers approved a $300 million relief plan that includes grants for small businesses and a one-time, $1,200 payment to unemployed New Mexicans who qualify.

“I think there’s a lot of hope on the horizon,” said New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question asking whether the governor considered using remaining CARES Act funds for direct payments to Texans.

Shelley Meyer owns Iconic Austin Brands, a company with Austin Rocks, Wild About Music, Toy Joy and Yummi Joy in its portfolio.

Meyer’s businesses are 90% dependent on tourism. She said small businesses like hers need additional support to survive.

“We’re not big enough to survive this, we don’t have those kinds of cash reserves. We’re not small enough to be desperate enough to get some of the city programs,” Meyer said. “I hope they figure out how to spend (the CARES Act funds). It would be very sad to lose it.”

Capitol grounds reopen, building still closed to public

The Texas Capitol grounds reopened to the public for the first time in months on Wednesday.

According to the State Preservation Board, which maintains the Capitol grounds, the grounds will remain open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. starting Wednesday.

“The building will remain closed,” SPB spokesperson Chris Currens confirmed in an email this week.

The SPB closed access to Capitol back in March in hopes of reducing the chance for exposure to COVID-19.

The grounds were closed at the end of May following protests which resulted in injury to Texas Department of Public Safety personnel, destruction of state property and damage to the Capitol building, according to SPB officials.

“The decision to keep the grounds closed involved DPS’ recommendation that the most sustainable, effective and safe course of action to protect state property was to control entry to the grounds,” Currens said in a Dec. 4 email.

DPS, which provides security for the Capitol building and grounds, forwarded inquiries about Capitol grounds reopening to SPB.

A follow-up inquiry to SPB about what triggered the reopening of the grounds was not immediately returned.

Nicole Smith was one of the first people to tread up to the Capitol steps Wednesday morning. Since moving to Austin from Houston in August, she has stopped by outside the gates on tri-weekly walks.

“Today when I saw that the gates were open — I’m just so happy to be here,” she said, after snapping a photo of the Capitol from beyond the south steps. “I feel like this is huge for our city, this is huge for our state and our nation that we go back to where we were as a people before this happened to us.”

“I feel like the gates have been opened, not only on the Capitol property, but in our lives,” Smith said. “Like, I feel like we’ve entered into a new season.”

On Thursday, Gov. Abbott told reporters that the Capitol building will be reopened. He did not say when that reopening would happen.

The first day of the upcoming legislative session is Jan. 12.

The Texas Department of Public Safety is asking lawmakers for more money to keep the Capitol safe. Last month, DPS submitted a budget request that included more than $39-million for enhancements to Capitol security.

The agency would use $36.3 million to pay for 65 troopers, five agents and two analysts, as well as $1.8 million in equipment which includes panic button notifications, x-ray technology, video cameras and gunshot detection capability. The agency wishes to spend $1 million to enhance bomb dog capabilities through its canine unit.

New COVID test helps keep students learning in-person

It’s Monday morning at Somerset High School in San Antonio — an institution that looks like many other Texas public schools. Starting at 8 a.m., the in-person students at SHS trickle into the gym wearing letter jackets, gym clothes and backpacks and gather in socially-distanced rows marked by tape on the gym’s wood floor.

Students at Somerset High School line up for weekly COVID-19 testing. (KXAN Photo/Chris Nelson)

If this were any other year, you might assume these students are getting ready for a pep rally. But, this isn’t any other year. It’s 2020. They’re lining up for COVID-19 testing.

Students at Somerset High School are among the first in the nation to be tested proactively every week for COVID-19 using a new approach called assurance testing. In a year when the words “testing” and “positivity rates” have faded into the background hum of our collective anxiety, another story about COVID-19 could easily seem unremarkable.

But, assurance testing is different — an entirely new way of looking at how and who we test to fight the spread of the virus. It’s helping thousands of people begin a return to normalcy in San Antonio, and it could be key in helping people across Texas stop the spread of the virus in their communities before it ever starts.

Creating not just a new type of test but also engineering a new way to use testing to fight the virus required the ingenuity of an unlikely group of people — a banker, a lawyer, a tech company founder and a team led by a pathologist at San Antonio’s Blood and Tissue Lab.

But, before digging into how assurance testing was created, it’s important to understand how it works. The idea hinges on the concept of micropopulations. These are the people in schools, offices or even entire neighborhoods that commit to frequent, regular testing to create what are known as COVID Safety Zones.

Red represents symptomatic people who test positive.
Green represents asymptomatic people who test negative.
Yellow represents asymptomatic people who test positive — the silent spreaders.

A micropopulation can be broken into three groups: people who don’t have COVID-19, people who are showing symptoms so they self-isolate on their own and people who are positive and don’t know it. These asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers are what scientists call “silent spreaders.” In a traditional testing scenario, these people would not be tested. So, they continue to go to work or school and spread the virus.

In an assurance testing scenario, silent spreaders are quickly identified because everyone is tested at frequent intervals — once or twice a week depending on the group. That means that people who are asymptomatic but test positive are identified early and can self-isolate before they start spreading the virus.

A growing body of research from the U.S. and abroad shows silent spreaders are responsible for a significant percentage of people who spread the virus to others. A study conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital and published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that children may be even more likely to spread the virus without ever showing symptoms.

“Probably 50% comes from the silent spreaders,” says Dr. Rachel Beddard at the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center. “These are people that have no idea that they have the virus. They’re not isolating themselves. They’re going about their regular business.”

It was a silent spreader who inspired the creation of the lab that brought widespread assurance testing to San Antonio.

Graham Weston became seriously ill with COVID-19 after contracting the virus from his son who was asymptomatic. Weston, former CEO of Rack Space and founder of the nonprofit 80/20 Foundation, said his illness inspired him to research better ways to prevent the spread of the virus. That search led him to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a leading research institute in genomics, where scientists were using an early form of assurance testing to make sure their employees weren’t spreading the virus at work.

Weston took this idea to two other big players in San Antonio philanthropy — Bruce Bugg of The Tobin Endowment and Tullos Wells at the Kronkosky Charitable Foundation — and the three decided to create a non-profit public-private partnership to build a lab and bring assurance testing to San Antonio.

“We have no interest in trying to make money off of this,” Bugg said. “We do believe this is a terrible pandemic. We want to do what we can to stem that tide.”

Dr. Rachel Beddard leads Community Labs where she and her team process 12,000 COVID-19 tests a day. (KXAN Photo/Laney Valian)

To help, Bugg and his partners connected with Dr. Beddard and her team at the South Texas Blood and Tissue Center. The group didn’t have experience with COVID-19 testing, but they were experts in other types of medical testing. Their lab runs more 60 million tests a year.

Using that experience, Beddard and her team expanded on the Broad Institute’s research and created a COVID-19 test that was inexpensive and highly sensitive. The test is also less invasive — a shallow nasal swab for five seconds in each nostril.

“We took pieces from various types of companies and platforms, pieced it together and made it so that it was not this one big kit that we were paying a huge amount of money for,” Dr. Beddard said. “This is the PCR test — the gold standard. So some PCR tests test only look for one region of genetic code, and some look for two. We look for three.”

A highly accurate, non-invasive test at a low price is what makes it possible for Community Labs to provide free testing to entire groups like the students and staff at Somerset High School.

Terry White is a history teacher at SHS. His wife has an autoimmune disease and, for his family, the risks of COVID-19 are always on their minds.

“Until we started doing this for about the first month of school, it was a daily scare,” White said.

When the district started assurance testing, White’s son, a freshman, returned to school in person, and White said he finally felt comfortable being at work.

“I can’t even begin to describe the relief it was for our whole family,” White said.

Using funding from private donors, grants and federal money from the CARES Act, Community Labs is now able to provide 12,000 tests a day for schools and businesses around San Antonio.

Bugg, who serves on Gov. Greg Abbott’s Strike Force to Open Texas, says he and his team hope to hand over what they’ve learned to bring assurance testing to as many Texans as possible.

“We’re a non-profit. Our ultimate goal is not to build a laboratory testing empire,” Bugg said. “I have been real frank with Governor Abbott and told him our goal is to basically give the laboratory to the state of Texas and let them take it on and continue to build it.”

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Dr. Beddard says all of their work at the lab is open-architecture. They’re always working to overcome supply chain limitations and the slow nature of manual testing. She hopes that being transparent with their research and best practices can help other communities take the first step in a path toward return to normalcy.

“On a global perspective, we’re taking everything that we’re doing here, and we’re providing it as a blueprint to any other city that wants to do this,” Beddard said.

Of the 70,000 tests Community Labs has run so far, 1,700 were identified as positive for COVID-19. Most of those positive test results came from people who were asymptomatic and had no idea they had they virus — people who very likely would have spread the virus to others had they not been tested. For Dr. Beddard, those asymptomatic positives are more than symbols on a lab machine: they’re evidence that Community Labs is saving lives.

“If I were to die tomorrow, God forbid,” she said, “I would feel like this was one of things that I contributed to our world that made it a better place.”

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