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Historic winter storm throws a wrench into COVID vaccine rollout in Texas

February 18, 2021, 9:13 PM UTC

Good afternoon, readers.

Texas is reeling from the historic winter storm Uri, which has overwhelmed the state’s power grid and left millions without power or even access to safe drinking water.

The loss of those fundamental utilities would be a crisis unto itself. But one storm is brushing up against another: A pandemic necessitating a mass vaccine rollout. That rollout will get a lot messier in states that have been hardest-hit by the onslaught of snow, such as Texas.

The Lone Star State, as of February 16, wasn’t doing a horrible job vaccinating its residents relative to other states. It has administered at least one dose of the two currently authorized vaccines to 10.6% of the population. That’s just slightly lower than the rates in California, Florida, and New York.

But things are about to get (and have already begun getting) messy. Dr. Anthony Fauci described the problem as “significant” in an interview with MSNBC on Thursday.

“It’s been slowed down in some places going to a grinding halt,” he said. “We’re just going to have to make up for it as soon as the weather lifts a bit, the ice melts, and we can get the trucks out and the people out.”

The trucks aren’t the only problem. Hospitals and care centers in certain areas such as Austin, Texas have had to evacuate patients as Uri has left medical centers without power or access to water. Not only can these facilities not serve as COVID-19 vaccination hubs for whatever vaccine supply is still available in the state—they don’t even have the capacity to care for current patients.

Non-hospital vaccination sites are also being forced to temporarily shutter. “We’ve delayed the vaccinations because we can’t open up the vaccination facilities,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in an interview with CBS News. “It’s just not safe for people to be out. So, we need this to thaw. And my understanding is we might be a day or two away from that. And then we are going to just have to re-double our efforts to make sure the vaccine that we have gets in the peoples’ arms. But for right now, we’re on pause.”

In one show of the extraordinary efforts being taken to grapple with the problem, active-duty troops are standing by to be deployed to Houston next week to assist in the vaccine drive.

And speaking of getting shots into arms: Fortune is hosting a discussion next week on these very topics. On Tuesday, February 23, at 11 a.m. ET, you can join a discussion with leaders including:

  • Dr. William J. Kassler, chief medical officer, government health and human services and deputy chief health officer for IBM Watson Health
  • Dr. Marc Watkins, chief medical officer, Kroger Health

You can register right here for the event.

In the meantime, read on for the day’s news, and see you next week.

Sy Mukherjee
sy.mukherjee@fortune.com
@the_sy_guy

DIGITAL HEALTH

Many tech types swear by microdosing. Could it help fight pandemic anxiety? There's a certain class of the Silicon Valley type that swears by microdosing, where you take small amounts of psychedelic substances. They swear by the mental health benefits of this practice (and, indeed, there have been clinical trials showing drugs ranging from LSD to the active component in magic mushrooms to MDMA may help treat anxiety, depression, and PTSD in a controlled, clinical environment). A startup called MindMed is hoping that such unorthodox treatment options become more widely-accepted following a pandemic that has left many Americans' mental health in tatters, writes my colleague Jeff John Roberts, and plans to partner with major pharmaceutical companies to help deliver LSD-based treatments. (Fortune)

INDICATIONS

The U.K. is prepping bold experiments in the COVID fight. The U.K. is planning a pair of experiments in the fight against COVID. First, drug maker AstraZeneca and Oxford University will be launching clinical trials for their experimental COVID vaccine in children as young as six; Authorized vaccines to date are only for those ages 16 and over, and other companies in the space such as Pfizer and Moderna are beginning their children's trials by focusing on teenagers before moving down to younger children. Concurrently, it's launching something called a "human challenge study" in which healthy young adult volunteers in the country will deliberately be infected with COVID. That may sound extreme, but it's not extremely rare in the infectious disease world. And there's scientific logic behind it: "The first [of two areas of research] will test varying amounts of virus to determine the smallest amount needed to cause an infection and generate an immune response. Organizers said the research would help identify factors that influence how the virus is transmitted, including how a person who is infected with SARS-CoV-2 transmits infectious particles into the environment. After that, Covid-19 vaccine candidates proved safe in clinical trials could be administered to groups of volunteers who are then exposed to SARS-CoV-2." (Fortune)

Explaining the glaring gaps in vaccine rollout. I spent the past few weeks delving into the various problems the U.S. faces in the COVID vaccine rollout. Medical experts and everyday people from across the country provided fascinating details on what getting a COVID vaccine should look like, versus what it does look like, and what's causing the gap between the two, including for issues such as verification (or lack thereof) for if someone is eligible for a COVID vaccine at a given time. It's a quagmire wrought by divergent state policies, the practicality of verifying eligibility, and the socioeconomic disparities which follow. I'll leave you with this bit of local insight in West Virginia, which is leveraging data to get doses to the right people: "We've done a lot of data analytics. We've done a lot of epidemiology work," says retired Major General Jim Hoyer of the West Virginia National Guard. "We have 100 National Guardsmen supporting epidemiology efforts at the state and local level here. So we did a pretty good job of knowing our data early on." (Fortune)

THE BIG PICTURE

Biden's historic pick to oversee Medicare, Medicaid, and the ACA. President Joe Biden has selected Obama administration veteran Chiquita Brooks-LaSure as his nominee to lead the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). The sprawling organization may have a boring name. But its duty is to oversee massive health care programs including Medicare, Medicaid, and Obamacare which touch the lives of one in three Americans. And, in a moment when long-festering racial health disparities are on full display due to the pandemic, Brooks-LaSure would be the first Black woman to ever lead the agency. (AP News)

REQUIRED READING

Bill Gates on the breakthroughs that might save us from climate changeby Clifton Leaf

The wage gap is only going to get worse after the pandemicby Geoff Colvin

The most prepared woman in Washingtonby Nicole Goodkind