On Monday, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced a new, simplified system for county residents to sign up to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Immediately afterward in his own event, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner explained how things are going with the Houston Health Department's vaccination efforts and discussed second vaccine doses, citing worries the city has heard from local residents concerned that vaccine supply issues might keep them from getting the required follow-up shot in a timely manner.
In remarks to the media Monday, Hidalgo said that starting Tuesday, Harris County residents will be able to add their names to a new coronavirus vaccine waiting list. Starting Tuesday, any Harris County resident will be able to add their name to the county’s vaccine waiting list, but only residents who sign up that are in either state priority group 1A or 1B will have their names selected to get a vaccine. Group 1A includes frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents, while group 1B includes Texans 65 and older and those with chronic health conditions.
Hidalgo did not give a specific time the waitlist would go live, but Harris County Public Health wrote in a statement it would be live at ReadyHarris.org “no later than Tuesday afternoon,” and that eligible residents can also sign up once the portal is live by calling 832-927-8787.
The goal for the new “smart waitlist” system, Hidalgo said, is to make it possible for county residents to get in the queue without having to deal with the frustrating call-center crashes and the blink-and-they’re-gone online appointment sign-ups that Houstonians and area residents have had to deal with during these early weeks of the local vaccine rollout.
“Let me put it bluntly: getting a COVID-19 vaccine shouldn’t be like The Hunger Games,” Hidalgo said. “It shouldn’t be about who can hit refresh on a browser the fastest. It shouldn’t be about who has special knowledge about when exactly a registration link will open. It shouldn’t be about who has the time to sit there checking all day, while those who work long hours are put at a disadvantage.”
“Registrants will not be selected on a first-come, first-served basis,” Hidalgo said. “Instead, they will be selected based on a prioritization and randomization process that goes along with state guidelines.” In a follow-up press release, Harris County Public Health wrote that people on the waitlist in group 1A will be prioritized to receive a vaccine ahead of those in group 1B, and that older residents will be called up to get their shots ahead of younger residents.
If selected through the random prioritization process, county residents will be contacted by the county to schedule a vaccination appointment. Once the state expands vaccine eligibility, Hidalgo said residents who don’t currently qualify will start to be contacted, but stressed that might not happen until months from now.
“In a couple of months, once the state makes vaccines available to another segment of the population, we’ll have those folks already on the waitlist and we’ll be able to reach out to them,” Hidalgo explained.
Previously, Hidalgo said that Harris County Public Health was only offering vaccine appointments “through known partners through an invitation-only process” that prioritized frontline workers in the state health department’s 1A and 1B priority groups, the only groups which the state is currently allowing to be vaccinated.
Hidalgo also said she wasn’t at liberty to discuss Monday’s news that criminal charges brought against Dr. Hasan Gokal — the former county health department doctor accused by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg of a Class A misdemeanor for stealing a vial of COVID-19 vaccine — had been dismissed by Harris County Court-At-Law Judge Franklin Bynum due to what he called a lack of probable cause.
In an affidavit, Gokal claimed that on December 29 at the end of a day of administering vaccinations in Humble, he took nine extra doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine that were set to expire hours later and would have been thrown out. He then supposedly reached out to his friends and family, and with their help identified eight people who qualified for vaccines under the state’s guidelines and vaccinated them himself that evening. Minutes before the final dose was set to expire, Gokal claims he gave the last dose his wife, who allegedly suffers from pulmonary sarcoidosis.
“The Court emphatically rejects this attempted imposition of the criminal law on the professional decisions of a physician,” Bynum wrote in his ruling that dismissed the misdemeanor charge against Gokal, who was fired by Harris County Public Health after a fellow employee notified the agency that Gokal had taken county vaccine doses and administered them off-site. In a statement, Gokal’s attorney Paul Doyle said his client plans to sue Harris County for wrongful termination.
“I’m not at liberty to comment on that because it’s an ongoing criminal case,” Hidalgo said when asked about Gokal's case.
“I will say… we’ve got a policy to prevent waste, fraud, abuse, obviously breaking rules and county processes, and we always encourage employees to report violations,” Hidalgo continued.
Just minutes later across town, Turner and other city officials gave an update on the Houston Health Department’s vaccination efforts at Delmar Stadium, the site of a new city health department drive-thru vaccination clinic operated in partnership with United Memorial Medical Center.
Turner said the new Delmar Stadium site will be able to handle at least 1,000 vaccinations daily, but could ramp up to as many as 3,000 per day if the city gets enough vaccine doses from the state. He stressed that vaccinations at the drive-thru center and any other clinic operated by the Houston Health Department are only available by appointment.
While Turner said the city is sticking primarily to online vaccination signups in lieu of making a waiting list available like Harris County, he did explain that a waiting list is available area residents who are disabled or are elderly — two groups who might have trouble making it through the city’s chaotic, quick-filling online registration process.
To get on that waiting list, Turner said folks with disabilities should call the Mayor’s Office For People With Disabilities at 832-393-5500, and that elderly residents need to call the Harris County Area Agency on Aging at 832-292-4301.
For now, the city health department will focus on keeping a steady stream of vaccinations going throughout each week at Delmar Stadium, the Bayou City Event Center and other neighborhood vaccine clinics instead of using Minute Maid Park as a weekend vaccination “mega-site,” Turner explained.
“Until the [vaccine] supply exponentially increases, we decided to kind of stand down from that for the time being,” Turner said. The most recent round of Minute Maid vaccinations on January 16 had Houstonians waiting in line for hours after the site was swarmed by eager local residents. Some without appointments were able to skip the line due to logistical failures on the ground, and many who did secure appointments were turned away after the health department ran out of vaccine doses.
The city’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Persse and Houston Health Department Director Dr. Stephen Williams both addressed second vaccine doses on Monday.
Persse referenced newly-issued guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control that say although the required second doses of Pfizer and Moderna’s coronavirus vaccines should ideally be given 21 or 28 days after the first dose, respectively, “the second dose… may be scheduled for administration up to 6 weeks (42 days) after the first dose.”
Before the CDC’s Thursday update to its second dose guidelines, HHD was echoing the CDC’s previous guidance that it was okay to get dose number two within a four-day grace period on either side of the recommended date.
“So if you’re not able to get vaccinated exactly on 28 days, or 29 days after... but you should get it on day 30, day 31, day 32, something like that, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that,” Persse said,” but I also don’t want people thinking ‘Oh, I don’t need to worry about getting a second dose.’”
Williams also referenced the new CDC guidelines on second doses, but claimed that “If you were vaccinated by the Houston Health Department, we’re gonna reach out to you within an appropriate timeframe to get that second shot,” seemingly referring to the recommended 28-days-later second dose date for the Moderna vaccine, the only version HHD has been offering.
Turner said that since HHD is already getting bombarded with calls from concerned residents about scheduling their second vaccine dose, he’s asking that people not call the health department unless they haven’t received a call from HHD within two days of their recommended date to receive dose number two.
“[For] the second shot, we will call you. But if you haven’t heard anything from us within let’s say a 48-hour period [of your recommended shot two date], then reach out to us,” Turner said.
On Monday, the Houston Health Department reported 3,039 new cases of COVID-19 and 11 new coronavirus deaths within the city. As of Monday afternoon, Harris County as a whole has reported 301,173 coronavirus cases and 2,874 deaths from the disease within the county.
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