Dr. Antonio Falcon

Following criticism of state Sen. Eddie Lucio who was photographed over the weekend receiving the COVID-19 vaccine, the Starr County Health Authority came to the senator’s defense and said providers shouldn’t shy away from vaccinating individuals who aren’t necessarily first in line under state guidelines.

As Starr County prepares to receive doses of the Moderna vaccine either late Tuesday or early Wednesday, Dr. Antonio Falcon, the county health authority, said state guidelines were just recommendations for providers and that, if there are enough doses, they should not be afraid to administer the vaccine to vulnerable people such as the elderly or those with underlying health conditions.

“Unless we run out of immunizations, I urge all of our local providers to follow the recommendations as much as possible, but sometimes we’re going to have to bend those rules a little bit,” Falcon said. “Nobody’s going to come and arrest you and those elderly, high risk patients need those vaccines now.”

“They’re the ones that are dying and we may not have a second opportunity to vaccinate or to mitigate the death and dying that we’ve been seeing,” he said.

However, in registering to administer the vaccine, providers sign a provider agreement in which they commit to administering the COVID-19 vaccine “in accordance with all requirements and recommendations of (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.”

Not complying with the terms of the agreement may result in suspension or termination from the vaccination program, the agreement warns, and criminal and civil penalties under federal law.

Compliance with the guidelines, though, is only one stipulation of the agreement which also includes the agreement to not sell the vaccine, providing an information sheet to each recipient, compliance with CDC guidelines on safe delivery of vaccines, and compliance with guidelines on how to store the vaccine.

Falcon’s remarks were prompted by news of Lucio, D-Brownsville, getting vaccinated over the weekend even though he is not among the group of people the state has prioritized to receive the vaccine first.

The first people being prioritized, considered Phase 1A, consist of front-line healthcare workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

The Phase 1B recipients — who are expected to be able to start receiving the vaccine in January, according to the Department of State Health Services — include people 65 and older and people over 16 with at least one chronic medical condition.

However, Falcon said that sometimes the boundaries between the two phases can get “fuzzy” and noted that there was more vaccine availability because interest in getting vaccinated was lower than expected among staff of Doctors Hospital at Renaissance.

He added that Lucio, at 74 years old, qualified as someone at risk of developing severe symptoms from COVID-19, having experienced a heart attack and undergoing heart surgery.

“So I think we should stop spending time judging things and just hoping that everybody can get vaccinated as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Falcon said, adding he thought Lucio could serve as an example of someone feeling comfortable and safe in getting the vaccine.

“We need that right now,” Falcon said. “We don’t want any more fear and misinformation in our community. There’s already enough of it.”

Starr County Judge Eloy Vera agreed with Falcon and said he had initially planned on getting the vaccine when it arrived in Starr as a way to encourage others in the community to take it. However, following the incident with Lucio, he decided to hold off.

“Some people might misconstrue that,” Vera said. “So I’ll wait until my turn, but I guarantee I am going to be taking it.”