Houston opens first drive-thru vaccination site

vaccine drive-thru
The Houston Health Department opened a new drive-thru vaccine site in collaboration with United Memorial Medical Center. (Courtesy HTV)

The Houston Health Department opened a new drive-thru vaccine site in collaboration with United Memorial Medical Center. (Courtesy HTV)

The Houston Health Department has set up its first drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination site, officials announced Jan. 25.

The site at Delmar Stadium at 2020 Mangum Road, Houston, is run in partnership with United Memorial Medical Center and has enough initial supply to distribute 1,000 doses per day through Jan. 30. It will be open by appointment only.

Mayor Sylvester Tuner said the city intends to keep the site running at a similar capacity as more doses come available from the city's weekly shipments. It also has the ability to scale distribution up when possible, Turner said.

"As frustrating as it may be I want to encourage people as patient as possible, ... we know that that demand is higher than supply," Houston Health Department Director Stephen Williams said.

Several smaller sites run through the Houston Health Department will also begin distributing limited supplies of the vaccine, although they will likely be unable to distribute more than 100 per day, Turner said.

Currently, all vaccine appointments with the Houston Health Department, including those at the drive-thru site, are filled through the end of January.

To sign up for upcoming appointments, city officials recommend signing up for text message alerts through the Alert Houston system at www.houstonemergency.org/alerts. This will notify residents when the health department is accepting new appointments. During earlier rounds, appointment slots have been filling up in a matter of minutes. Appointments are scheduled through www.houstonemergency.org/covid-19-vaccines.

Residents over the age of 65 can sign up for a waitlist through the Area Agency on Aging by calling 832-393-4301. Those with disabilities can join a waitlist through the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities by calling 832-393-5500.

An additional "mega-site" at Minute Maid Park with the capacity to vaccinate over 5,000 residents was opened Jan. 16. Turner said that site will reopen as more vaccines come available but said the smaller sites result in shorter wait times for those arriving for their appointments.

"Based on the limited supply, we think that is a smoother way to go," Turner said.

For second doses, residents should receive a phone call from the health department to schedule appointments, Houston Emergency Medical Director Dr. David Persse said. Second doses can be received up to 42 days after the first doses, although the ideal window falls between 21 and 28 days post-vaccination, he said. Residents should only call the health department if a second vaccine appointment has not been scheduled within 21 days, he said.

"If you are not able to get vaccinated exactly within that window, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it," Persse said. "But you absolutely do need to focus on getting the second dose."

The city's announcement came on the same day Harris County announced its new waitlist program for vaccine appointments.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she opted for the waitlist format rather than a first-come, first-serve model to encourage equity among recipients. Those within vulnerable age and health groups are prioritized and then chosen through a lottery-style process.

By contrast, Turner said the city's first-come, first-served process helps manage expectations.

"You can establish a waitlist and have 100,000 people on a waitlist," he said. "When you have a very limited supply, I don't think there is any system that is going to alleviate the frustration."

The Houston Health Department reported 3,039 new cases Jan. 25, the highest single-day report to date; however, some of those are attributed to a backlog of reporting, Turner said. The city also reported 11 new deaths and a test positivity rate of 17%.

Despite high case counts, signs from regional hospital systems, such as ICU-bed usages, indicate that a post-holiday surge may be beginning to decline, Persse said.
By Emma Whalen
Emma is Community Impact Newspaper's Houston City Hall reporter. Previously, she covered public health, education and features for several Austin-area publications. A Boston native, she is a former student athlete and alumna of The University of Texas at Austin.