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Turner and Health Department Talk Vaccines, Federal Mask Rules In Weekly Coronavirus Update

The Houston Health Department is starting to give local residents their required second vaccine doses.
The Houston Health Department is starting to give local residents their required second vaccine doses.
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During the city’s weekly Monday COVID-19 update, the leader of the local health department dropped the news that an online sign-up system for scheduling the required second-dose of coronavirus vaccine is apparently rolling out later this week.

According to Houston Health Department Director Dr. Stephen Williams, a website for those who received a first vaccine dose from the city's health department to register to get a second dose is coming soon. “Starting later this week, and maybe even as soon as tomorrow, we plan to send out a link for people to self-schedule [for their second vaccine dose],” Williams said.

Even though the dose two signup website is apparently in the works, Williams said the health department — for now — still intends to call folks who got their first shot from the city to schedule those required follow-up appointments. He and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner both asked people not to call the city's COVID-19 hotline about second doses unless they haven’t heard from the health department within 48 hours of the recommended dose two date, 28 days after dose one.

Even though the city has repeatedly brought up updated guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that says second vaccine doses can be administered up to 42 days later first doses, Williams said “Our intention is to come as close to that 28-day due date as possible.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday that the city is trying to make sure vaccines are distributed equitably to poor and minority residents.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday that the city is trying to make sure vaccines are distributed equitably to poor and minority residents.
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Turner said that this week alone, the health department has scheduled “11,971 second dose appointments” for this week. “If you haven’t gotten the call, you will be getting a call to get notified by the City of Houston Health Department. Please answer the phone, even if there’s a number that you’re not recognizing.”

On Friday, the Houston Health Department announced it wouldn’t be opening up any public appointment slots of vaccine first doses for the shipment of 9,000 doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine it received for the week of February 1.

Instead, the city health department’s latest batch of shots is being split between 1,300 Houstonians who already had appointments for this week, 2,400 residents “in vulnerable communities” and 5,300 people on the Area Agency on Aging’s waitlist for elderly residents. Turner announced a week ago that elderly Houstonians could call the aging agency to get on that waitlist, but the list was closed on Friday after more than 70,000 people called-in to sign up.

Williams said he wasn’t sure if or when the waitlist for elderly city residents would open back up, and neither Turner nor Williams said whether or not the city is planning to work through the waitlist before opening up vaccine appointments to all local residents who currently qualify to get vaccinated.

Turner also referenced new CDC rules that go into effect Monday at 11:59 p.m. which mandate that anyone over the age of 2 has to wear a face mask when using public transportation, as requested by President Joe Biden.

“Starting today,” Turner said, “a federal mask mandate requires face masks to be worn by all travelers on airplanes, ships, trains, subways, buses, taxis and rideshares [like Uber or Lyft]...you are mandated to put on your mask to cover your mouth and your nose.”

“Anyone who refuses to comply with this federal mandate may face civil penalties, including being immediately escorted out of the airport,” Turner explained.

On Monday, the Houston Health Department reported an additional 1,089 confirmed cases of COVID-19 within Houston and six new coronavirus deaths in the city. That puts Houston’s cumulative case total at 158,751 since the start of the pandemic, and a total of 1,784 Houston residents have died from the disease.

Turner also touted a “very successful” weekend pop-up vaccination clinic with Hope Clinic in Alief, which was run in conjunction with the local Vietnamese Doctors Association. He said the city’s strategy going forward “will focus on putting the vaccine into communities that are high-risk and vulnerable,” and said he’s hopeful that the Houston Health Department will announce another weekend clinic in northeast Houston sometime later this week.

“I know Director Williams will make that happen,” Turner said. He didn’t close with an “or else,” but it was pretty easy to read between the lines.

Williams himself admitted as much later in the press conference. “The mayor is actually giving me directions when he’s talking about northeast. We really haven’t settled on that. We’re gonna try to make it happen,” he said.

“What he’s saying is ‘Stephen, you need to really go into the communities where people are in order to ensure access and equity,’” Williams explained.

He then described the “balancing act” of making sure vaccine doses can get to poor Houstonians and minority residents who are at higher-risk for COVID-19 complications through these smaller pop-up clinics, while still ensuring as many people can get vaccinated as fast as possible, which is a lot easier to do through big so-called “mega-sites” like the city has run at Minute Maid Park several Saturdays in January.

“We need to keep those [larger] sites up,” Williams said, “because if we don’t really vaccinate large numbers of people, we will lose access to vaccine,” as the Texas Department of State Health Services is prioritizing vaccine shipments for providers who prove they can get lots of shots into arms.

Speaking of the equitable distribution of vaccines, Williams claimed that the percentage of Black and Hispanic people who have been vaccinated by the city health department and its partners is higher than the rates seen in county-wide vaccine demographic stats. He addressed the topic after a reporter mentioned a recent city report that said 11 percent of Harris County vaccine recipients are Hispanic and 13 percent of them are Black so far.

“When you look at the vaccine ratio and ethnic breakdown of vaccinations that are done by the City of Houston or one of our affiliates, those numbers are larger than what was quoted,” Williams said. He either couldn’t remember the city’s stats on either metric off the top of his head, or chose not to share them.

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