Intense Winter Weather Causing Blackouts and Complicating Texas’ COVID-19 Vaccination Efforts

February 17, 2021 by Reece Nations
Natalie Harrell holds her sleeping daughter, Natasha Tripeaux while sitting in a recliner at a Gallery Furniture store after the owner opened his business as a shelter for those without power at homes Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021, in Houston. More than 4 million people in Texas still had no power a full day after historic snowfall and single-digit temperatures created a surge of demand for electricity to warm up homes unaccustomed to such extreme lows, buckling the state's power grid and causing widespread blackouts. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AUSTIN, Texas — Rolling blackouts caused by an unprecedented winter storm have delayed the delivery of hundreds of thousands of doses of COVID-19 vaccinations across Texas, state health officials said Tuesday. 

Texas was set to receive 407,650 first doses and 333,650 second doses of COVID-19 vaccines from the federal government for the week of Feb. 15, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services

The department had instructed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ship doses to 302 providers in 158 counties before the National Weather Service issued a winter storm warning for all of the state’s 254 counties on Sunday. 

Now, much of the vaccine’s rollout has been compromised due to snow and ice accumulations making major roadways impassable throughout the state. Travel advisory warnings have been issued throughout Texas and parts of Oklahoma, according to the National Weather Service

President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency in Texas on Sunday to aid state and local response efforts. The emergency declaration was quickly approved by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

“I thank President Biden for quickly issuing a Federal Emergency Declaration for Texas as we continue to respond to severe winter weather conditions throughout the state,” Abbott said in a written statement. “This disaster declaration provides Texas with additional resources and assistance that will help our communities respond to this winter weather.” 

Health officials in Harris County had to scramble Monday to administer 8,430 COVID-19 vaccine doses after power outages caused backup generators to fail at the Harris County Public Health building, according to Click 2 Houston. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said 3,000 doses were sent to the Harris County Jail, 1,000 doses were sent to the Houston Methodist Hospital, 810 doses were sent to Rice University, and 600 doses were sent to the Lyndon B. Johnson and Ben Taub hospitals. 

Hidalgo said 5,410 of the 8,430 available vaccines were distributed in a rush before they thawed and were rendered unusable. County health officials were given guidance by Moderna, the vaccine’s producer, on how to refrigerate and preserve the remaining doses. As of Wednesday, over 3.4 million customers were still without power amid record low temperatures, according to PowerOutage.us. A new record low temperature was recorded three days in a row at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and wind chill was in the negatives, according to Spectrum News

“The Electric Reliability Council of Texas has been anything but reliable over the past 48 hours,” Abbott said. “Far too many Texans are without power and heat for their homes as our state faces freezing temperatures and severe winter weather. This is unacceptable.” 

At this time, 13 deaths in Houston have been linked to the cold weather and dozens more are likely connected to the bitter cold enveloping the region, according to the Houston Chronicle. Harris County alone has seen more than 300 cases of carbon monoxide poisoning, likely stemming from unconventional heating methods like stovetops, ovens and gas-powered generators. 

On Monday, wholesale spot prices soared to over 10,000% amid the rolling power outages, according to Reuters. Market prices on the grid managed by ERCOT, the state corporation charged with operating more than 90% of the state’s electricity, rose from prices of less than $50 per megawatt-hour to more than $9,000 per megawatt-hour. 

“We must cut through the finger-pointing and hear directly from stakeholders about the factors that contributed to generation staying down at a time when families needed it most, what our state can do to correct these issues and what steps regulators and grid operators are taking to safeguard our electric grid,” Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a written statement. Phelan requested a joint hearing between the state’s House State Affairs and Energy Resources committees examining power grid outages to convene on Feb. 25. 

At least 21 deaths have been tied to the deep freeze across the states of Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas, according to Reuters. Texas is the only continental U.S. state to operate a stand-alone electricity grid not subject to federal regulation. 

Roughly half of Texas’ electricity is generated from natural gas generation, supplemented by coal, nuclear power and renewable energy. Wind turbines in Texas lack heating technology commonly found in colder climates, causing them to become inoperable due to icing, although this accounts for far less energy output than natural gas operations in the state. 

Problems persist with natural gas wells as many remain inoperable due to equipment and mechanical components freezing over, according to The Texas Tribune. An estimated 45 gigawatts, or roughly half, of ERCOT’s generating capacity was offline Tuesday. 

Just 6% of ERCOT’s winter power capacity was expected to be generated from wind turbines throughout the state, according to The Tribune. The harsh cold is expected to last through the week as millions of Texas residents are still without power. 

“The statewide blackouts raise questions about the reliability of our electric grid and its ability to withstand extreme weather events in the future,” House State Affairs Committee Chairman Chris Paddie told Reuters

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