As Harris County crossed the threshold of one million COVID-19 vaccine shots into the arms of local residents Thursday afternoon, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo pleaded with local vaccine providers to do a better job of getting doses to the county’s hard-hit minority communities.
Even though she acknowledged that hitting the million dose mark is “wonderful news,” she said during a Thursday press conference that only 12.1 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, compared to the 11 percent of all Texans that were fully-vaccinated as of Tuesday.
Hidalgo also pointed out how Black and Hispanic residents still aren’t getting vaccinated at the same rate as white and Asian residents, and challenged other local vaccinators to follow Harris County’s lead by making a concerted effort to change those trends.
“We’ve been going door-to-door in the hardest hit communities to get folks to register for our waitlist, but we need other providers in Harris County to join the effort more forcefully,” Hidalgo said.
“Every organization that administers vaccines in this county has a moral responsibility to reach the hardest hit residents,” she continued.
Hidalgo had the numbers to back-up her claim that Harris County Public Health is doing a better job than other local vaccine providers in getting doses to minorities. Across Harris County, 43 percent of residents are Hispanic and 19 percent are Black, and out of the more than 300,000 vaccine doses the county health department has given out, 31 percent have gone to Hispanics and 18 percent went to Black residents, Hidalgo said.
But out of all the county residents who have gotten at least one vaccine shot, Hidalgo claimed that only 22 percent are Hispanic and only 10 percent are Black.
She said that even once vaccines “become available to every adult” in Texas starting Monday, “we’re going to continue focusing on the hardest-hit zip codes as well as older folks” when prioritizing who gets selected from the county vaccine waitlist to get a shot.
Hidalgo made sure to note that her criticism was focused on other local vaccine providers besides the Houston Health Department, which she claimed was doing a better job than most of prioritizing minorities (though she didn’t mention any specific stats from the city health department).
To make sure county residents of color get vaccinated more quickly, Hidalgo asked local providers to aggressively push the message out that vaccines are free and safe, and “to drop any ID requirements” that might scare off uninsured or undocumented residents, two groups that are more likely to be Black or Hispanic.
She also mentioned the importance of having vaccination sign-up options that don’t require people to go online to register. “We need all providers in Harris County to offer a system where folks who don’t have access to the internet, who are not tech-savvy, who don’t have flexible schedules and can’t sit in front of the computer ready for a link to open up [can sign up],” Hidalgo said, stressing that over half a million phone calls have come in to the county’s vaccine waitlist hotline so far.
“We will not reach herd immunity if we leave a community behind,” Hidalgo said. “It’s impossible.” Experts have predicted that true herd immunity from COVID-19 would only be possible if upwards of 70 to 80 percent of people get vaccinated.
With an eye on keeping up the current pace of local vaccinations to hit that herd immunity goal, Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner asked the U.S. government on Wednesday to keep its NRG Park vaccination mega-site open through at least the end of May. The FEMA-run clinic gave out 6,000 first doses of Pfizer’s two-shot vaccine every day for three weeks straight starting on February 24 before switching over to giving second doses. The original plan was for the FEMA site to only run for six weeks total.
In a letter to acting FEMA administrator Robert Fenton, Hidalgo and Turner wrote that “Relative to other vaccine providers in Harris County, the site has vaccinated a greater share of vulnerable and priority communities,” and argued that the federal vaccine clinic’s success “in reaching communities that lack equitable access to the vaccine demonstrates the need for its continued operation.”
Even though all adults in Texas will be eligible to get a vaccine shot come Monday, Hidalgo seemed to signal that her plan is to hold tight until her name gets called off of the county’s randomized waitlist instead of trying to secure a shot elsewhere.
“I myself am registered, and I’m excited to get my vaccine soon,” she said.
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