As vaccinations lag in Cy-Fair, experts say herd immunity may be unattainable

When the COVID-19 vaccines first became available, Lydia Garcia, a Cy-Fair resident and former medical professional, was hesitant to get one.

Garcia knew what vaccines were meant to do. But she also knew people who had had heart attacks—like she had during her son’s birth four years ago—were being urged to exercise caution.

“I was reading that some of them could give blood clots, so I was going to hold on until they became [Food and Drug Administration] approved or more information came out,” she said.

The tipping point came when Garcia’s mother-in-law caught COVID-19 in August. With her husband working, she was the sole caretaker.

Now that she has her vaccine, Garcia has had conversations with her family about getting vaccinated without much progress.

“My mother-in-law changed her tune after she nearly died; she was telling her kids, including my husband, to get the shot,” Garcia said. “[My husband] believes it’s his right not to if he doesn’t want to.”

Harris County’s COVID-19 response division is seeing the same hesitancy on a countywide scale. Jennifer Kiger, the division’s director, said the county is lagging on vaccination rates, including in parts of the Cy-Fair area.

“When we look at vaccination rates across the county, ... we do see lower vaccination rates in the north, central and east parts of the county,” Kiger said. “But in general, we’re not at the point where we need to be across most [Harris County] ZIP codes.”

The new 69-position division was created Aug. 24 and took over COVID-19 testing, vaccination and outreach countywide for the next two years. The $17 million division is being funded through the Public Improvement Contingency Fund and federal COVID-19 relief grants.

While Harris County Public Health rolled out initiatives this summer to incentivize vaccines, Kiger said reaching herd immunity—when a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to a disease through vaccination and/or prior illness—is becoming increasingly unattainable.

“[Herd immunity is] getting harder and harder to achieve because of the variants and low vaccination rates,” Kiger said. “What we’re trying to achieve now is ... a lower hospitalization rate, low morbidity/mortality rates and ... less community spread.”

Summer slowdown

Since Texas expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility in mid-May to include everyone age 12 and older, HCPH has been making vaccines more accessible to more than 4.7 million residents by establishing mass and mobile vaccination sites and a community COVID-19 hotline.

One of those providers is Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, which launched a vaccine clinic Jan. 18, according to Andy Cole, the hospital’s regional administrator who is overseeing the vaccine clinic.

At its peak, the clinic had the capacity to administer up to 900 doses per day; however, Cole said that has since been cut to about 650 doses per day in response to the current demand.

“Mid-June is when [vaccine demand] started dropping significantly, and we’ve been pretty slow through the summer,” Cole said.

Simultaneously, the delta variant began spreading over the summer, causing Harris County to raise its COVID-19 threat level Aug. 5 back to red, signifying severe and uncontrolled spread of the virus.

While the FDA issued formal approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine Aug. 23, Cole said the change in demand for vaccines has been minuscule.

Protecting ineligible children

Children under age 12 were not recommended to receive any available COVID-19 vaccines until the Food and Drug Administration authorized the emergency use of the Pfizer vaccine for those ages 5-11 on Oct. 29.

Christine Hanes, a Cy-Fair parent of three, has taken it upon herself to help get her community vaccinated. Hanes and her eligible family had no hesitation about getting the shot because her 7-year-old daughter, Rory, was born with complex congenital heart defects, serious lung issues and Down syndrome.

“As soon as it was available, my husband and I got vaccinated, for Rory’s sake,” Hanes said. “My son just turned 13, so he became eligible, and we were able to schedule shots for him as well.”

To keep her children safe, Hanes pulled Rory and her middle child, both Cy-Fair ISD students, out of in-person learning. Her oldest son, who began eighth grade in August, is not eligible for the district’s virtual learning, so Hanes began home-schooling him.

“It’s really challenging,” Hanes said. “I hope that we’ll have more options to talk with [the district]. Just so more kids have this as an option.”

CFISD reported over 3,800 students were enrolled in its virtual learning program, which has only been available to students in kindergarten to sixth grade this school year. More than 4,200 confirmed cases were reported on campuses from the start of the school year Aug. 23 through Oct. 19.

Hanes said over the summer, she participated in the district’s efforts to reach out to parents and informed them of her situation. She said she has been trying to use the risks Rory faces as an incentive for her community to get vaccinated. She has been met with both positive and negative responses.

“In our community, everyone knows about Rory, so she’s almost become the face of vaccination here,” Hanes said. “But I still have people resisting, saying they don’t have to.”

Incentivizing vaccines

In hopes of driving up vaccination rates, HCPH launched incentive programs this summer, including a 10-week program during which a $5,000 scholarship was awarded weekly to a student who had received their vaccine from a HCPH site.

Another HCPH incentive program launched Aug. 17, giving anyone who received a vaccine through HCPH a $100 cash card. Citing a 706% increase in daily vaccinations, county officials expanded the program to include all medical providers in Harris County. The program was later extended twice, ending Sept. 30.

HCPH announced it would begin offering vaccine booster shots Oct. 1. The FDA authorized the third dose of the Pfizer shot Sept. 22 for populations age 65 and older and those age 18-64 at high risk of COVID-19.

Kiger said the COVID-19 division is ramping up its efforts as many fully vaccinated residents will soon hit their eight-month booster shot milestone. Cole said Houston Methodist will continue to host vaccine clinics until the demand runs dry.
By Jishnu Nair

Reporter, North Houston Metro

Jishnu joined Community Impact Newspaper as a metro reporter in July 2021. Previously, he worked as a digital producer for a television station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and studied at Syracuse University's Newhouse School. Originally from New Jersey, Jishnu covers the North Houston metro area, including Tomball, Magnolia, Conroe and Montgomery, as well as the Woodlands and Lake Houston areas.

By Hannah Zedaker

Editor, Spring/Klein & Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood

Hannah joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in May 2016 after graduating with a degree in journalism from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In March 2019, she transitioned to editor of the Spring/Klein edition and later became the editor of both the Spring/Klein and Lake Houston/Humble/Kingwood editions in June 2021. Hannah covers education, local government, transportation, business, real estate development and nonprofits in these communities. Prior to CI, Hannah served as associate editor of The Houstonian, interned with Community Impact Newspaper and spent time writing for the Sam Houston State University College of Fine Arts and Mass Communication and The Huntsville Item.


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