Local Health Departments Off To Rocky Start With COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner got his COVID-19 vaccine Monday afternoon while most locals are still sorting through the confusing vaccination process.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner got his COVID-19 vaccine Monday afternoon while most locals are still sorting through the confusing vaccination process. Screenshot
Both the Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health started giving out COVID-19 vaccinations to the public this past weekend, and each rollout has had more than its fair share of technical hiccups, glitches and snafus that left countless qualifying Houstonians frustrated and hundreds of county residents with cancelled appointments.

On Monday morning, the city health department announced a shiny new vaccine registration website for qualifying residents. By mid-afternoon, slots were full through January, and in an afternoon press conference, Houston Mayor Sylvester said the city isn’t taking any more appointments for now.

“The vaccine clinic appointments are booked for the rest of this month, and the department is not taking additional appointments at this time,” Turner said in a press conference. “However, what I will say to you is we are moving to set up additional sites throughout the city of Houston,” he continued, and said that he’s hopeful the city will be able to open a new vaccination mega site by this weekend, but didn’t provide any additional details.

Monday’s news followed a hectic weekend of city-run vaccinations. The city first announced Friday that it would start giving out vaccines on Saturday to locals in the state’s first two vaccine priority groups, 1A and 1B, which respectively include frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents, and Texans who are either 65 or older or who have at least one chronic medical condition that could exacerbate a potential COVID-19 case.

That last group is a pretty massive number — for example, one of the qualifying conditions is obesity, which means approximately eight million Texans qualify to get vaccinated now based on being overweight alone.

HHD told Houstonians to call the city COVID-19 hotline starting at 7:30 a.m. Saturday to make an appointment, but the call center quickly crashed under the understandably massive volume of callers. Via Twitter, Turner announced at 9:17 a.m. Saturday that the city’s vaccination site was shifting to in-person registration only at the Bayou City Event Center, resulting in an hours long line of cars flocking just south of the 610 loop.

The health department then tweeted that Houstonians could call the hotline again first thing Sunday morning at 7:30 a.m., but by the time Sunday morning rolled around, HHD announced that all of Sunday’s appointment slots were already full. Apparently, they’d been given out to residents who showed up in-person Sunday morning, or who were in line Saturday when that day’s allotment ran out). Despite all the errors and mixed messaging, Turner said Monday that the city ultimately vaccinated nearly 2,000 Houstonians over the weekend.

The Houston Health Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment from the Houston Press about the weekend’s vaccinations and Monday’s vaccination website launch.

On Monday, the city health department reported an additional 899 new cases of COVID-19 and 2 new deaths within the city, putting Houston’s total cumulative case count at 122,331 and the local death count at 1,570.

Turner also said that the city’s 14-day average coronavirus test positivity rate has hit 13.9 percent, the highest it's been since peaking in July and an over two-point increase in the 11.6 percent rate reported last week.

Harris County’s public health department also started vaccinating locals in groups 1A and 1B this weekend, but had to pull down its registration website Friday night after realizing too many non-qualifying residents had signed up for a slot.

Elizabeth Perez, the county health department’s spokeswoman, told the Houston Press that her department shared the link to its vaccine registration site with groups it considered to be at high-risk for catching COVID-19, “like those that worked at homeless shelters, educators that fit the criteria, those staff who worked in jails… and first responders,” hoping to make vaccinations available for county residents in those groups who also met the state’s group 1A and 1B criteria.

“Unfortunately, what happened is that it just spread, and people started sharing it beyond what was supposed to be shared… we had people that were signing up who did not fit the criteria,” Perez said.

Ultimately, Perez said that led to at least 324 county residents having their weekend vaccine appointments cancelled by the county after it realized they didn’t fall under groups 1A or 1B. All told, she said that the county had vaccinated approximately 5,000 people as of Monday.

Perez also explained that all Texan vaccine providers are tracking which patients have received doses of the COVID-19 vaccine and the version they've received through the statewide vaccination database, ImmTrac2, which is already used to track other vaccinations across the state. She said that the state has told her department that future shipments of the vaccine from the state will be based in part on how many people received the first dose from a given provider, which will ensure that all providers will get enough doses so that their patients can get the required second vaccine dose a few weeks later.

click to enlarge Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Monday that his county health department still hasn't gotten any vaccine doses. - SCREENSHOT
Fort Bend County Judge KP George said Monday that his county health department still hasn't gotten any vaccine doses.
Down in neighboring Fort Bend County, the county health department hasn’t run into any vaccination issues, but that’s because they’re still waiting on their vaccines to show up in the first place.

While local hospitals have received shipments, Fort Bend County Judge KP George told county residents Monday morning that the Fort Bend Health and Human Services Department still hasn’t received the coronavirus vaccine doses it was promised by the state.

George and county HHS director Dr. Jacqueline Minter said Fort Bend county residents could register for a spot in line for the county’s vaccination program at The only problem was the site hadn’t been updated with the vaccine registration link at the time of their announcement Monday morning, but by the afternoon it had finally been added.

“We will do everything under our power to get more vaccine, and are making sure that it’s going to be distributed in an orderly manner,” George said.

Following his own Monday press conference, Turner received the COVID-19 vaccine live on camera, which he said was an attempt to assuage the fears of Houstonians in minority groups who the health department worries might be hesitant to get vaccinated. Black residents in particular, Turner mentioned, might be thinking back to the horrendous, racist Tuskegee syphilis experiment of the 1930s that led hundreds of Black Americans with syphilis to die untreated from the disease under the government's watch after they were lied to about receiving treatment.

“Walking through the clinic on Saturday and Sunday, what was noticeably absent in many ways was the number of people of color who were not in those lines,” Turner said, before urging Houstonians of color to trust that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe, effective, and needs to be taken by as many people as possible to get the raging local pandemic under control.

“This is not the Tuskegee project,” Turner said. “We recognize the hesitations people have, the fears that they have. While many people are coming to get the vaccine, this is not the time for people of color to be staying away from the vaccine… because until we get to that 75-80 percent herd immunity, we’re all going to be adversely affected.”
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Schaefer Edwards is a staff writer at the Houston Press who covers local and regional news. A lifelong Texan and adopted Houstonian, he loves NBA basketball and devouring Tex-Mex while his cat watches in envy.
Contact: Schaefer Edwards