University Medical Center has refused to release demographic data of those it has vaccinated against COVID-19, making it impossible for the public to know whether the county-owned hospital is protecting El Paso’s most vulnerable residents.
UMC says it is legally prohibited from releasing data that includes the age, race and ethnicity and ZIP code of vaccine recipients, even though cities across the state have made such information public.
One of the city’s leading infectious disease doctors said transparency is important.
“I’ve always believed in transparency,” said Dr. Ogechika Alozie, a co-chair of El Paso United COVID-19 Transition Task Force, which creates recommendations to guide the city and county’s coronavirus response. “ … In the middle of a pandemic, where we’re trying to understand how policies are made and how distribution of resources are made, I think it’s more than fair that organizations need to be open and honest about how they’re distributing things.”
If an organization is legally allowed to release such data, Alozie believes they should. “That is what the community needs to know: who have you given this vaccine to,” he said.
In a Feb. 4 letter in response to a request for the age, race and ethnicity and ZIP code of residence of UMC’s vaccine recipients, Assistant County Attorney Ryan Kerr wrote that “records of epidemiological investigations, which include immunization records, are not public information.”
He cited Chapter 81 of the Texas Health and Safety Code as the reason for withholding this information. That chapter gives a government entity the discretion to decide whether to release medical or epidemiological information “for statistical purposes if released in a manner that prevents the identification of any person.”
The city of El Paso used the same argument over the summer to withhold the names of places tied to COVID-19 clusters. The Texas attorney general’s office sided with the city’s position.
Kerr also cited Chapter 161 of the health and safety code, which states that individual immunization records can only be disclosed with an individual’s consent. El Paso Matters did not seek individual immunization records in its request.
The county-run hospital has received the most coronavirus vaccine doses from the state out of all El Paso County providers. As one of two designated “hubs” in the county, UMC has received 32,400 doses from the state since Jan. 11.
Unlike the city-run hub, UMC does not use a waiting list and instead opens its online appointment registration when doses become available.
Though UMC has partnered with a handful of agencies, such as the Housing Authority of the City of El Paso, to vaccinate at-risk populations, the bulk of its doses are allocated to the community on a first-come, first-served basis.
A Jan. 19 records request with the city of El Paso for the same demographic information is pending. The city-run hub has received 26,000 vaccines from the state.
The city attorney’s office says it has been working with a “skeleton crew” since March 2020, allowing it to take longer than the required 10 business days to respond to information requests. City attorney staff have not provided an estimate of when the records will be ready. The city’s online records portal notes the request is awaiting “attorney analysis.”
Other large Texas cities have released age, sex, race and ethnicity and ZIP code data in recent weeks, including Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin. That data revealed disparities in their distribution, with residents of wealthier ZIP codes receiving a greater share of the vaccine.
Asked Friday whether the city plans to publish similar data, Fire Chief Mario D’Agostino, who heads the city’s emergency management office, said staff is “working on some maps that we would like to add to” the epstrong.org data dashboard.
D’Agostino did not give a timeframe by when the maps will be available, onlying saying “we’re hopeful we’ll see that in the near future.”
In his first news conference since winning December’s runoff election, Mayor Oscar Leeser on Monday did not directly answer whether he thought El Paso’s vaccine distribution has been equitable. Instead, he pointed to the more than 90,000 people in the county who have received their first dose.
El Paso has the highest vaccination rate among the state’s 10 largest counties.
“Are we equitable? We will continue to follow CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines; that’s so important,” Leeser said.
“Will we continue to adjust and will (we) continue to look at how we can do it better and different? Absolutely,” he said, adding the city manager has made adjustments based on City Council members’ concerns.
Council members, though, have not received data showing who has been vaccinated. Their concerns have been based on residents’ concerns rather than concrete data.
Without the data, there’s no way to know whether doses are going to those 75 and older, who are at higher risk of severe illness from the virus, Alozie said. The data would also reveal whether residents of the city’s wealthiest ZIP codes are more likely to be vaccinated than those in the lowest-income neighborhoods, which generally have been hit harder by the virus.
El Paso’s efficient distribution should be lauded, Alozie said.
“… But at the same time, hubris and accolades don’t win any awards. We have to continue to ensure that inasmuch as we’ve done a great job, we continue to strive to get better. And that’s where the data can guide us to say, where are we missing: what age group are we missing? What geographic location are we missing?”
Correction: This story has been modified to clarify Dr. Ogechika Alozie’s comments. He was not criticizing UMC’s position; he was supporting the importance of transparency.