A waitlist for the COVID-19 vaccine will open to the Harris County public Jan. 26. The waitlist will be open to all residents of the county, though only those who are eligible to receive the vaccine under state guidelines—including health care workers, individuals age 65 and older and people with health conditions that make them more at risk—will be selected for appointments, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.
"This is a work in progress, but our fundamental goals are that we want to be thoughtful ... and we want to focus on efficiency, equity and fairness," she said.
People in Phase 1A of the state's distribution plan, which includes health care workers and nursing home residents, will be prioritized over people in Phase 1B, which includes everyone over age 65 and people over age 16 with certain medical conditions, Hidalgo said. Older people will also be prioritized over younger people in general, she said. Beyond that, she said people will be selected randomly, as opposed to on a first-come, first-served basis.
"Getting a COVID-19 vaccine shouldn't be like the 'Hunger Games,'" Hidalgo said. "It shouldn't be about who can hit refresh on a browser the fastest. ... It shouldn't be about who has the time to sit there checking all day while those who work long hours are put at a disadvantage."
Residents who are not eligible for a vaccine today can still register for the waitlist. When the state expands eligibility to other segments of the population—a move that is not expected for another several months—the county will open up its own appointments to those groups as well, Hidalgo said.
Up until this point, the county's public health department has been administering its vaccines through an invitation-only process that prioritized frontline workers who would otherwise have a difficult time securing vaccines, including emergency medical providers, home health workers and homeless shelter workers, Hidalgo said. Since late December, the county has administered 27,426 vaccines, and is receiving about 9,000 new vaccines each week from the state, she said. An estimated 236,337 vaccine doses have been administered overall in Harris County, according to state data. However, county officials say that data is likely two to three weeks behind what has actually been administered.
Residents can sign up to be on the vaccine waitlist online or by phone starting the afternoon of Jan. 26, according to the Harris County Public Health press release. To sign up by phone, residents should call 832-927-8787 on Monday through Saturday between 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Phone operators will be available in English, Spanish and Vietnamese, and Hidalgo said the county is working to add more languages.
After being placed on the waitlist, residents will receive an email or phone confirmation. Once selected for an appointment, they will receive an identification code and will be asked to select a date and time to be vaccinated within the next 48 hours. The county is also working on a texting system, she said.
People who show up for a vaccination without a identification code will be turned away, Hidalgo said.
Hidalgo warned that residents should not expect an immediate appointment even if they are eligible for vaccines under state guidelines.
"This process does not mean that we've received massive additional stockpiles of vaccines," she said. "The supply continues to be extremely limited, and it's going to take time for folks who are added to this waitlist to be contacted for an appointment."
Dr. Sherri Oniyego with the county's public health department emphasized the continued importance of residents wearing masks, washing hands and maintaining social distance.
"We can’t let down our guard," she said.
Meanwhile, officials in nearby Montgomery and Fort Bend counties have launched their own vaccine preregistration efforts, both of which saw available appointments quickly filled.