Severe winter weather wreaks havoc on COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Abby Haglage
·6 min read
Pedestrians walk along a snow-covered street in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 15. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather to the state. (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk along a snow-covered street in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 15. Winter storm Uri has brought historic cold weather to the state. (Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)

Extreme winter storms are pummeling the United States, causing power outages in cities nationwide. But for those in states affected by the storm, it's further hindering efforts to get vaccinated — prompting dangerous driving conditions, supply delays and canceled appointments.

Russ Tidwell, a 68-year-old in West Texas, was scheduled to receive the second dose of his COVID-19 vaccine on Friday — a plan that would require a five-hour roundtrip drive to Odessa, where he received his first dose. But with the region set to get another snowstorm on Thursday, he wasn't sure he would be able to drive. "It's a big problem here," Tidwell says about winter weather. "If the roads ice over in any of the big cities, it's just a disaster."

Shortly after our phone call, Tidwell received a text from the facility saying that his appointment had been canceled due to supply issues. "They ran out. Most shipments to Texas are delayed due to weather," he says. "I'm happy not to drive to Odessa tomorrow." The retiree, who was interviewed by the Texas Tribune about his first shot in January, says he heard about vaccine appointments in the small city of Odessa from a friend who had driven over 175 miles to get one. He was eager to get his own, so drove the 140 miles from his home base of Marathon, then waited in a three-hour line of cars for his turn. "I've had younger friends who have gotten [COVID-19] and had severe reactions — you've heard of the various complications long-termers and all that," he says. "It's clear to me it's something you don't want. If you're not taking it seriously, you're a fool. It can change your life or end your life."

Now, he says he'll have to wait until March to get the second shot. But he's far from the only one. Officials in Oregon revealed Wednesday that 67,000 shipments of the vaccine have been delayed due to the weather. Indiana closed five of its vaccination sites. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said Thursday that a "vast majority" of the vaccines that the city planned to distribute this week had not yet been received, and in a statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned Americans to expect "widespread delays" in shipments due to the weather.

Michael Kinch, associate vice chancellor at the Centers for Research Innovation in Biotechnology & Drug Discovery at Washington University in St. Louis, says he's worried about residents driving. "I'm hearing stories about this on a daily basis — and as I look outside, it's snowing heavily and you're putting the population at even greater risk when they're going to drive two or three hours," Kinch tells Yahoo Life. "Frankly, Missouri is pretty far south, and we're not used to this kind of winter. You're going to have people driving in the snow, risking their lives and the lives of other cars on the road to get a vaccine because the distribution is flawed? That's worrying."

While the winter weather has been an unexpected wrinkle in the vaccination plan, experts have been warning that the U.S. was ill-prepared to vaccinate millions for months. "We saw this coming," says Jennifer Kates, senior vice president and director of global health and HIV policy at the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. "We wrote a report back in October looking at distribution issues and what some of the challenges were likely to be. So I think for anyone looking at it, it was fairly obvious that there wasn't much attention being paid to the ground game."

This lack of attention on how individual states would be distributing the vaccine has led to a rollout, even under ideal weather conditions, that has been dominated by chaos. Limited supply, lack of centralized databases and changing eligibility requirements have left many Americans scrambling to find an appointment. For some, it has meant spending days hitting refresh on the computer. For others — like Tidwell — it's meant spending hours in the car.

Texas, Colorado, Florida and Missouri are just a few of the states in which residents have reported taking road trips in order to get vaccinated. “It was a process, but I think it paid off,” a 67-year-old in St. Louis, who woke up at 2:30 a.m. to drive to Perry County, told STL Public Radio. Another St. Louis resident, this one 75, told the station she recognized that it's not something everyone can do. "I can see that there's a privilege there that I don't feel good about, but I didn't create the situation,” Mary Dunger told STL Public Radio. “Anybody I know that's done it has had internet access and been able to easily; once they become aware of the possibility, they're able to get online and pursue it.”

Kinch, who has a background in pandemic preparedness at the federal level and authored a book on vaccines, is increasingly concerned about who is — and isn't — getting vaccinated. "It's like they say with an airplane that crashes, the ones who survive are the ones that push everyone out of the way and jump over the seats," he says. "That's a terrible Darwinian pressure, but that seems to be the case here. People who are willing to drive across the state are getting the vaccine. And the people that can't drive across the state are the ones who need it the most."

Looking at nationwide data, he says that the goal of vaccinating the most vulnerable populations is not always happening. "We see incredible inconsistency among different regions," he says. "The populations at highest risk, for example, the elderly and certain minorities, don't seem to be getting the vaccine. And the anti-vax movement that hasn't kicked in yet. So it's not a lack of uptake — it's a lack of availability."

While Kates takes issue with those who are "cutting the line" (by, for example, misrepresenting their health), she isn't as concerned about those finding appointments by driving far outside their zip code. "If you are eligible in your state and your county doesn't have availability and a county elsewhere does, I don't see anything unethical about that," she says. "You're still prioritized."

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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