Grave challenges have made their way into the new year, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to spread across the nation, leaving residents uneasy on when they’ll potentially receive relief.

One form of relief comes from allotments of vaccinations, which have begun transporting across the United States. The vaccine, created in the labs of Massachusetts-based Moderna, has finally begun to make its way to Refugio.

On Dec. 30, 2020, the Refugio County Memorial Hospital District saw a line out the door of the Refugio Community Center for a potential vaccination, with 154 residents ages 65 and above receiving the vaccine. In accordance with Texas State Department of Health guidelines, the 65 and up residents are the key members of “Tier 1B distribution” of the Moderna product. The “Tier 1A distribution,” covering healthcare workers and first responders, is now in completion stages.

“We as a county were very fortunate to have enough doses to at least start the process of administering vaccines to the Tier 1B list,” Refugio County Memorial Hospital CEO Hoss Whitt wrote. “Most counties have not yet had that luxury. We still have a long way to go to make sure that every one of our citizens within this county who wants or needs the COVID vaccine can get one.”

One way to insure further allotments of vaccine from the state, according to Whitt, is to “distribute the given allotments of the vaccine in a timely, efficient manner and within the guidelines provided by the Texas Department of Health and Human services.” The first vaccination event transpiring in an orderly manner, Whitt said, was evidence that the county can control larger allotments of the vaccine if given.

“Our event (on Dec. 30) is proof that our community is capable of accomplishing great things and that we can handle the distribution of a much larger vaccine allotment from the state,” Whitt wrote. “We still do not know exactly when our next allotment will be or how many doses will be in that allotment, but we are already taking steps to better prepare for another distribution.”

When the next allotment is received, two groups of residents will be the first considered for vaccination. First, a second dose of the vaccine is required for anyone vaccinated on Dec. 30, which is tentatively scheduled for administering on Jan. 28 at the Refugio Community Center. The date is subject to change if there is a delay in the delivery of the vaccine from the state.

Second, patients younger than 65 years will be given vaccinations if they suffer from the following conditions: cancer, COPD, chronic kidney disease, heart disease, solid organ transplantation, obesity with a BMI of 30 kg/m(squared), pregnancy, sickle cell disease, Type II diabetes Mellitus.

The Moderna vaccine was approved by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) for use on Dec. 18, 2020, and was authorized by the European Union on Jan. 6. The vaccination, given via shot in the arm, is one of two major vaccines coming into the market, the other being distributed by Pfizer/BioNTech. 

Both vaccines are called “Messenger RNA vaccines,” otherwise known as mRNA. According to the CDC, mRNA vaccines “take advantage of the process that cells use to make proteins in order to trigger an immune response and build immunity to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.” This is in contrast to majority of vaccines, which “use weakened or inactivated versions or components of the disease-causing pathogen to stimulate the body’s immune response to create antibodies.”

The vaccine is best described by the CDC as “instructions for the cell on how to make a piece of the ‘spike protein’ that is unique to SARS-CoV-2.” Since only a portion of the protein is made, the vaccine does not do any harm to the person vaccinated. After the piece of spike protein is created, the cell breaks down the mRNA strand and disposes of them using enzymes in the cell. The mRNA strand never enters the cell’s nucleus or affects genetic material, clearing up attempts at disinformation regarding the vaccination’s potential modifications of genetic makeup.

Once the protein is displayed on the cell surface, the immune system begins to produce antibodies and activate T-cells to fight off what it thinks is an infection by the protein. These antibodies are specific to the SARS-CoV-2 virus, protecting against future infection.

This technology has been tested rigorously before being authorized for use within the United States, and has been studied for over a decade. The mRNA vaccines do not contain a live virus, do not carry a risk of causing disease in a vaccinated person, and once again do not affect or interact with a person’s DNA.

One major difference between the two vaccinations, Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, is in their allowed temperature for storage. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be stored at around minus-70 degrees Celsius (minus-94 degrees Fahrenheit) and lasts just five days in a refrigerator. Moderna’s vaccine is a bit easier to store, being kept at temperatures of minus-20 degrees Celsius (minus-4 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to six months, and at refrigerator temperatures of 2-8 degrees Celsius (35-46 degrees Fahrenheit) for up to 30 days. One other difference is in dilution, as vials of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine must be diluted for injection, and used within six hours once diluted (or thrown out). The Moderna vaccine, on the other hand, does not need to be diluted prior to use.

The vaccination’s introduction into the Refugio community is a needed sign of hope in the midst of a dark winter fighting COVID-19. According to Texas DSHS data, on Jan. 6 alone there were 19,535 new confirmed cases of the virus in Texas, with over 1.6 million cases taking place throughout the state since March 2020. Texas DSHS estimates that there are 55 active cases in Refugio County as of Jan. 6, with 434 confirmed cases in the county since the pandemic began.

According to Whitt, the first “success” of a vaccination event in the county was part of that hope.

“This event could not have happened without multiple organizations working together. … I also want to thank my staff who once again stepped up to meet the public health needs of the community,” he wrote. “I could not ask to be part of a better team. It is a privilege to not only work with my staff but also our dedicated community leaders. Together we are proving that rural communities can accomplish great things.”

•tleffler@mysoutex.com•

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