The improvement in local COVID-19 stats may have something to do with the increase in Houston area vaccination rates thanks to incentive programs run by Harris County Public Health and the Houston Health Department. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Friday that her office believes over 30,000 people got vaccinated due to the county’s recently concluded $100 gift card program for residents who received their first shot of any COVID-19 vaccine between August 17 and September 30.
Hoping to get even more people vaccinated, Louisiana’s biggest health system Ochsner Health announced last week an interesting plan to charge a fee to employees whose spouses hadn’t yet gotten vaccinated who are enrolled in the company’s health insurance program. No major hospital system in Houston has implemented a similar policy, and at least one local hospital chain — Houston Methodist, who like Ochsner Health has issued a vaccine mandate for all employees — told the Houston Press it had no plans to charge fees to employees with unvaccinated spouses.
Throughout the United States, coronavirus hospitalizations have been falling in recent weeks, mostly due to decreases in Southern states like Texas with relatively low vaccination rates, where the Delta wave spread most rapidly. Compared to the beginning of September, there were 200,000 fewer COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals as of Friday, according to a New York Times analysis.
Across Texas, 7,934 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Monday afternoon, down from a Delta-wave high of 13,928 near the end of August. Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Harris County have followed a similar downward trend over the past several weeks. New coronavirus cases have also continued to fall in Texas — the number of daily new reported infections has decreased by 41 percent over the past two weeks. Throughout the Texas Medical Center’s service area across greater Houston, new daily COVID-19 cases averaged 1,826 last week, compared to 2,094 the week prior and the monthly average of over 4,000 new cases per day.
Hidalgo and Harris County public health officials are touting the county’s month-and-a-half-long $100 cash card incentive program as a big factor in the recent improvement in local COVID-19 metrics. According to data the county shared with Houston Public Media comparing Harris County’s vaccination rates with neighboring counties who never launched incentive programs of their own, Harris County Public Health believes approximately 28,700 people got vaccinated who probably wouldn’t have otherwise as of September 18, the last day the county had data available for as of Friday.
Hidalgo said based on the vaccination trends the county observed throughout the $100 incentive program, she believed the final numbers will show at least 30,000 county residents chose to get vaccinated while the incentive was offered.
“At least 30k people would not have gotten the vaccine were it not for the $100 incentive program,” Hidalgo tweeted Friday. “That’s 30k people who almost have a 0 percent chance of dying from COVID, and who have a much lower chance of transmitting it to their loved ones.”
“That’s a victory,” Hidalgo wrote. Neither Hidalgo nor any other county officials have indicated that another incentive program will be launched in the future. As of Sunday, 76.1 percent of eligible Harris County residents (those 12 years of age and older) had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and 65.1 percent were fully vaccinated.
On the flip-side of vaccine incentives is Louisiana-based Ochsner Health’s decision to penalize the unvaccinated spouses of its employees with a $200 a month fee to remain on the company’s insurance plan. The large Louisiana hospital chain announced the new penalty Thursday citing the high costs of treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients, and the hospital system had previously enforced a vaccine mandate for all of its employees.