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Fort Bend County Judge KP George speaks during a news conference Oct. 1 at Smart Financial Centre in Sugar Land. (Photo by Stefan Modrich)

By STEFAN MODRICH 

smodrich@fortbendstar.com

Fort Bend County Judge KP George is asking that teachers be included in the first round of COVID-19 vaccine distribution by the state of Texas.

George did so in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott that was shared on social media Monday. State Rep. Ron Reynolds of House District 27, which includes parts of Fort Bend County, co-signed the letter.

George requested that “teachers and school faculty members be considered as part of the frontline tiers as local health entities begin to administer the first round of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

The US. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted an emergency authorization late Dec. 11 to deploy the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Texas’ Department of State Health Services has since initiated a distribution plan that prioritizes healthcare workers and calls for 110 health providers to receive a total of 224,250 vaccine doses as part of the first wave of distribution, with Houston Methodist Sugar Land Hospital expected to receive 1,950 doses this week.

The county judge added in the letter that at least two area schools had applied to be a part of the state’s rapid testing program.

In response to a surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalization rates in Fort Bend County and Greater Houston, George announced during a Dec. 9 news conference that he would be elevating the county’s coronavirus threat level from orange — “moderate to significant risk” —  to red, or “high community risk.”

“This vaccine is going to focus on those that are high-risk,” said Dr. Jacqueline Minter, director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department. “Those in the healthcare delivery system, those in hospitals and long-term care facilities, as well as EMS (personnel). Those will be the first ones to be offered the vaccine.”

As for when the general public will have access to the vaccine, Minter said to expect a window of 6-9 months.

“There is definitely light at the end of this tunnel,” Minter said.

In anticipation of the vaccine rollout, the Texas Senior Medicare Patrol (TSMP), a division of the Better Business Bureau Education Foundation, issued a warning to seniors and all those interested in receiving a vaccination to avoid scams and fraudulent notices related to the distribution of the vaccine.

TSMP’s Jennifer Salazar wrote in a news release that  Medicare recipients will  “likely not need to pay anything out of pocket to get the vaccine during this public health emergency.” In addition, Salazar wrote that any solicitations such as paying to add your name to a list or for promises of early access to a vaccine are also scams. No one from Medicare or the Health Department will contact recipients regarding a vaccine or to sell treatments or ask for sensitive information such as a Social Security number or bank account number.

Medicare recipients who have coverage questions should contact their local State Health Insurance Assistance Program (SHIP) at SHIPTAcenter.org or 1-877-839-2675.

George wrote in a letter to residents explaining the change to the county’s guidelines that “as the holiday season kicked off, we are seeing alarming trends of positive cases, hospitalizations, and other critical factors going in the wrong direction.”

Cases began to increase steadily in Fort Bend since the beginning of November. On Nov. 27, the most recent data point following the Thanksgiving holiday, 462 cases were reported, and the spike continued into December, with 5,214 new cases added between Dec. 1-11, the most recent data available as of Monday.

Dec. 3’s total of 1,285 cases was a new single-day record for the county, the highest total since 859 cases were reported on Aug 14. On Dec. 8, the county recorded its second day of more than 1,000 positive tests.

There have been 331 deaths reported due to COVID-19 and 22,002 recoveries in Fort Bend County.

Minter said the county has conducted interviews and done contract tracing with residents who tested positive for COVID-19. A common response, she said, was that people were gathering more, even if those gatherings were not necessarily large groups. She said the county will be able to approximate whether or not the results from any cases that may have been connected to gatherings that took place on Thanksgiving will be available next month.

“What we are seeing now is reflective of behaviors that occurred 10 to 21 days prior,” Minter said. “And the rate of growth in numbers represents widespread and uncontrolled transmission of (the coronavirus).”

She said there has also been an increase in testing and test positivity as well as an increase in hospitalizations and ICU bed patients as a result of COVID-19.

Minter also noted the same preventative measures the county has advocated regarding the coronavirus have also been effective in slowing the spread of the flu as county residents have been getting their seasonal flu shots.

“This further demonstrates that our behavior does have consequences, both positive and unwanted,” Minter said. “We know COVID fatigue is real. We know you’re tired. We’re tired, too, but being tired and stopping (adherence to health guidelines) has its consequences.”

George reiterated that positive developments, such as the deployment of a vaccine, is not a reason for people to let their guard down. But he said he will not be issuing any new restrictions like curfews.

County judges have been limited in the scope of their authority by Abbott since April, when the governor decided to not allow local officials to issue COVID-19 restrictions stricter than that of the state’s.

“There is no shutdown order,” George said. “This is actually a guideline for our citizens so that we can all work together.”

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