Public health officials in Harris County are looking to kick distribution efforts for the coronavirus vaccine into high gear in the coming weeks, with a new mass distribution site now open at NRG Stadium and a federal plan bringing tens of thousands of vaccines to local pharmacies.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott opened up vaccine access to child care workers and people who work in schools on March 3, and officials have said they were hopeful vaccinations of the general public could begin this spring. With more vaccines becoming available, focus has increasingly turned to access and education.
Cy-Fair resident Kaleen Reed said she was initially frustrated with the challenges of getting an appointment and registered with seven providers. In February, she said she set up an appointment through Memorial Hermann Health Systems, and got three more invitations that same week.
“It all seems so random, but based on the amount of invitations I’ve received, the system seems to be working,” she said.
County officials said they are distributing their limited number of vaccines as efficiently as they can. In an effort to promote vaccine equity, people are prioritized if they live in one of 10 “high-risk” ZIP codes, based on high case counts, death rates and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. The ZIP codes are reassessed and updated each month.
But public health advocates said it will become increasingly important for outreach to improve.
“I’m worried that we are just going to see a replay of that same movie that we’ve seen again and again,” said Dr. Mollyann Brodie, executive vice president of Kaiser Family Foundation, speaking at a Feb. 18 virtual panel on broader trends in the U.S. “[A] new vaccine comes, and then two to three years down the road we look back, and we ask why the mortality rate is still higher in these populations. We come back and figure out that nobody went to them in a concerted and sustained way.”
Successes and challenges
Those eligible for vaccines in Texas in the first two phases under the state plan include front-line health care workers, people with certain medical conditions and individuals over the age of 65, totaling roughly 2.2 million people in Harris County, according to state estimates. Following the March 3 announcement about school and child care workers, another 143,248 people joined the ranks of eligible residents in Harris County.
As of March 1, just over 1 million vaccines had been distributed in the county, including about 15,500 in the Cy-Fair area, according to a Community Impact Newspaper analysis of weekly state vaccine reports.
Some Cy-Fair residents who have struggled to make appointments said they hope things become easier as retail pharmacies become more involved under a federal rollout plan launched in February. Of the 15,500 vaccines distributed to the Cy-Fair area, about 3,600 have been sent to pharmacies, including 700 to CVS Pharmacy and 1,200 to Walmart.
One success story can be found at the independent living community Solana Preserve Vintage Park, where 100% of the 137 residents were vaccinated in February through a partnership with CVS, Executive Director Rena Knowles said. The community, part of Brookdale Senior Living, was able to leverage its power to get vaccines faster, Knowles said.
“Not very many [independent living properties] in even the city of Houston had that opportunity,” she said. “Because of our size and our power we were able to secure those.”
Communities of color have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, suffering a disproportionate number of the cases and deaths, said La Vonia Cannon, a former pharmacist who now serves as the regional director of Walgreens stores in the Greater Houston area. For that reason, it is even more crucial to make sure those communities are covered in vaccine efforts, she said.
Statewide data is murky on the racial breakdown of who is getting vaccinated, with race reported as “unknown” for more than one-quarter of the 6 million vaccines that had been allocated as of Feb. 21. Of the remaining 4.5 million vaccines, about 2.28 million of them had gone to white people, while about 1.03 million had gone to people who identify as Hispanic and 321,000 had gone to Black people.
Both the city of Houston and the Texas Department of State Health Services have contracted with Walgreens to help distribute vaccines, Cannon said The pharmacy chain launched a partnership Feb. 9 with the ride-hailing service Uber so people who lack transportation can get free rides to vaccine appointments, she said.
“Being in these communities of color that are socially underserved, we’re able to build those relationships I think a lot more strongly, and they’ll be more long lasting,” Cannon said. “With that relationship, we’ve seen [pharmacists] provide a lot more 1-on-1 education.”
Part of the challenge of reaching underserved communities also has to do with education, Brodie said. People who do not understand how vaccines work or why they are important are less likely to seek them out and more likely to be suspicious, she said.
If outreach to those communities is lacking, or if vaccine sites are not located within them, Brodie said people who otherwise could have been swayed to get vaccinated would end up missing out.
“There’s a large share in the movable middle, and they very much want to see what happens to those who take the vaccine ahead of them,” Brodie at the Feb. 18 panel. “They want their valid concerns about the safety and the side effects addressed.”
In an online survey about vaccine confidence conducted by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, people who identified as African American and Latino were more likely to fall into categories that suggest they undecided about the vaccine.
The survey, conducted between Jan. 12 and Jan. 20, garnered 1,329 responses. About 14 percent of African Americans and 11 percent of Latinos said they would “probably not” get vaccinated, compared to 10 percent of White people. Meanwhile, about 15 percent of African Americans and 10 percent of Latinos said they were unsure, compared to 9 percent of White people.
White people made up the majority of survey respondent who said they “definitely would” or “definitely would not” get the vaccine.
State and local officials said they are doing what they can to reach underserved communities. The state launched a vaccination site at NRG Stadium on Feb. 24 in a pilot program with the Federal Emergency Management Agency that Abbott said will expand vaccine access to underserved communities. The site will vaccinate 126,000 people over the course of eight weeks, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.
“The same people who’ve been disproportionately impacted by the virus are the same communities that have a disproportionately low percentage of folks getting the vaccine,” Hidalgo said at a press conference to launch the site. “We have to correct that, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the only way we will reach herd immunity and return to normalcy.”
Editor's note: The version of this article that appears in March 4 editions of Community Impact Newspaper in the Cy-Fair area was written prior to vaccine access being opened up to school and child care workers. This version was updated to reflect that change.