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Tarrant County judge urges shots as hospitals are overwhelmed with unvaccinated COVID-19 patients

 A little over half of eligible Tarrant County residents are vaccinated against COVID-19. County Judge Glen Whitley urges residents to get vaccinated and get their booster shots.
Keren Carrión / KERA News
A little over half of eligible Tarrant County residents are vaccinated against COVID-19. County Judge Glen Whitley urges residents to get vaccinated and get their booster shots.

From Texas Standard:

Tarrant County hospitals are once again seeing a surge in COVID-19 patients as well as staff shortages because of the coronavirus. On top of that, testing capacity is strained, it has run out of antibody treatments and it's still waiting on shipment of new medication aimed at combatting the virus. But the county does have one defense strategy that's fully operational: vaccines.

Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley tells Texas Standard that the county has plenty of COVID-19 vaccines and boosters ready for those who need it. And that's important because the vaccine has shown to keep people who do contract the virus from getting seriously ill. Listen to the interview with Whitley in the audio player above or read the transcript below to learn more about Tarrant County's continued vaccination effort, plus how the federal government is also bringing in reinforcements as the omicron variant spreads.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Texas Standard: What do you see on the ground? What are the current challenges Tarrant County seems to be experiencing right now?

Judge Glen Whitley: I think we're seeing the same challenges that everybody around the state is saying: a shortage of staff in our hospitals; it's not so much that we don't have beds available, it's the problem of staffing those beds many of our hospitals are experiencing and I know they've requested from the state the help of the state guard, National Guard, for nurses and for staff. But we're just experiencing some real staff shortages because the staff are coming down with COVID.

What do you need in terms of medicines? Are you seeking more antibody treatments or maybe COVID-19 pills that have just become available?

Yes, we are. We have. I've talked with our hospital CEOs. They're saying this monoclonal treatment, there's a couple of vendors that are not as effective against [COVID-19] on the ground, and I'm not sure which ones those are. But there are also a couple that are that have seemed to be very effective, but they're out of them right now. And what they're telling me is, you know, they have ordered more, but they're not real sure when those are going to come in, and they're not as reliable as far as arrival dates as they would like for them to be. But they are effective if they can get them.

We've been reporting on how school districts are trying to deal with this. How's it working out there in Tarrant County? Have you considered shutting down businesses, or perhaps changes in instructional education?

I've talked with the superintendents. I've been on a call with them and I think at this point in time, at least, they're trying to get the students back and see what the situation is and then probably make a decision from that. But our hands are tied to a great degree. The governor has taken away our ability to make local decisions, and he is, you know, choosing to make those decisions on a statewide basis.

Experience with past COVID surges indicates that we're likely going to see a spread that could actually exacerbate the spike that we're having now. Why not take steps to delay the return of students to classes or go to online school? 

I'm a real big supporter of local control. We've got over 20 school districts, not all of the same. And you know, I want to leave that to the local school districts themselves, their elected boards, their superintendents, their teachers. So, you know, they have to be the ones making those decisions, just like I would like to be able to, be able to make decisions as it pertains to other things that are going on in the county.

I've worked with and talked with our cities in the form of the city managers, the mayors, the councils, as well as the superintendents and the school districts. And what they've said all along is we're each a little different and we want to be able to look at the situation at the moment and make decisions and not be bound by someone out of Austin making those decisions for us.

But you could, for instance, put limits on, say, restaurants and capacity in restaurants.

No, no, I can't do any of that.

The key to a lot of this is getting more people vaccinated. Data shows about 53% of Tarrant County residents are fully vaccinated, 18% have had their booster shot. What do you do to get more people vaccinated?

Keep trying to put out the word that, trust your physicians. Quit reading some of this garbage on social media and on the internet. Everyone needs to get that vaccine, needs to get the booster as soon as they can get it. We have plenty of vaccines available not only through our public health but through the pharmacies. It's readily available. And I just wish that everyone would make an effort to get out and get that vaccine because I truly believe that's the only way we're going to be able to get ahead of this.

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Jill Ament