At the first in-person Harris County Commissioners Court meeting since the start of the pandemic, commissioners discussed ways to get more county residents vaccinated against COVID-19. About 45% of Harris County residents age 12 and older were fully vaccinated as of the June 8 meeting, and 56% had received at least one dose, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said states including Ohio, Washington and New Mexico have successfully increased their vaccination rates by offering lottery prizes and other incentives.

A new county initiative announced June 3 will award a $5,000 scholarship each week to one student who receives their vaccine from a Harris County Public Health site. The scholarship can help current or future students pay for tuition, room and board, and books at any community college, public college or university in the state of Texas.

Raffle candidates must be residents of Harris County, under the age of 18 at the time of their initial dose and must have received at least their first dose from a HCPH vaccination site at any point before the raffle drawing. Citizenship status is not checked or required, officials said.

Drawings will take place weekly for at least 10 weeks, Hidalgo said. Learn more and see the raffle schedule here.

Future outreach

Another major attempt to increase those numbers comes in the form of a potential contract with a firm called Elevate Strategies for a full year of targeted community vaccine outreach with three one-year renewal options. Commissioners agreed in a 4-1 vote to have county officials finalize the contract that would be up for approval at a future meeting.

Hidalgo said if that contract is ultimately approved, this firm would engage county residents via calls, texts, social media, face-to-face canvassing and direct mail, focusing on the neighborhoods hit hardest by COVID-19. The county has previously partnered with Elevate Strategies to help raise awareness about the 2020 Census, she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia supported the plan, saying he believes individuals respond to one-on-one engagement. He requested to prioritize the “most stubborn” ZIP codes that have lower vaccination rates as a starting point.

Both Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, who voted against the plan, and Precinct 3 Commissioner Tom Ramsey expressed concerns about the estimated cost of the project, which was not publicly disclosed during the meeting.

“I don’t want us to just be spending money to be spending money. It should be done with a clear understanding of what we’re going to get for it,” Ramsey said.

While the motion up for discussion did not include approval of the financial costs associated with the forthcoming contract, Hidalgo requested the cost be included in the meeting agenda where commissioners will have the opportunity to approve the actual agreement.

Hidalgo also said she anticipates these funds will be reimbursable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but in the meantime, the county would pay Elevate Strategies in installments over the course of the project.

“They’re not going to get all the money at once,” she said. “So, they get a chunk, we see how they’re doing; if something’s working we’ll continue to fund it. If something’s not working, we won’t.”