Earlier this year, Houston area residents watched COVID-19 vaccine appointment websites and phone lines crash under the pressure of massive public demand for the life-saving shots. That was followed by months of available vaccine appointments getting filled in mere minutes, when locals had to be online at just the right time to have any hope of getting a dose.
Now, over a year into the pandemic, local residents can finally get vaccinated against the coronavirus at a moment’s notice at NRG Park.
As of Monday, appointments are no longer required to get a shot of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine at the NRG Park site operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo announced. And starting Wednesday, the FEMA vaccine site will shift its operating hours ahead by four hours to be open daily from noon through 9 p.m., a move the county hopes will make it easier for residents that work during the day to come by and get a vaccine.
Hidalgo didn’t just make headlines for announcing the new NRG Park vaccination rules on Monday. That afternoon, she was also named as one of two recipients of this year’s John F. Kennedy New Frontier Award, an honor given annually by the former president’s family to honor Americans under 40 “who are changing their communities and the country with their commitment to public service.”
She was chosen for the award for “boldly” leading Harris County through the pandemic by “implementing important health measures before they were popular,” JFK’s grandson Jack Schlossberg said. Hidalgo’s fellow New Frontier honoree, Yeshimabeit Milner, founded the Data for Black Lives initiative.
While some may have thought Hidalgo might be in a celebratory mood when announcing that it’s now easier than ever to get vaccinated against COVID-19 in Harris County on the same day she received this award, her tone Monday was definitely more concerned than jubilant.
In remarks to the media Monday, Hidalgo warned that it’s only become so much simpler to get a COVID-19 vaccine because fewer residents are clamoring to get them, which may mean herd immunity could be further off than expected.
“Demand hasn't just caught up with supply; Now, there is more supply than there is demand,” she said. “That means we have more vaccines than we have people willing to get them right here at NRG Park. We’ve got a precious resource that we can’t afford to waste.”
Hidalgo said that the NRG Park vaccine site is able to administer at least 6,000 shots a day, and some days even hit 7,000 vaccinations. But starting the week of April 12, “we began seeing 2,000 people, 3,000 people,” Hidalgo said. Her spokesman Rafael Lemaitre tweeted that at 2:25 p.m. Monday, there was no line at all to get a vaccine at the FEMA super site.
Currently at ZERO wait for vaccines at NRG Park. You can literally just drive up and out and get a vaccine. https://t.co/rMXICtMI6O— Rafael Lemaitre (@CJOspox) April 19, 2021
Given that only 25 percent of all Harris County residents who qualify for a COVID-19 vaccine have been fully vaccinated, that means there are still large swaths of locals who are eligible but so far haven’t gotten a shot. Combined with the dwindling turnout at the NRG clinic, that metric has Hidalgo worried.
Since opening in late February, over half a million doses have been administered at the federally-operated site. FEMA recently chose to keep the NRG Park clinic up and running through mid-May (a shift from the original plan to only stay open through early April) because of high demand and requests from Hidalgo, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Gov. Greg Abbott. Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he believes local officials will “probably be able to make the case to keep it even longer,” but that all depends on keeping demand high.
Hidalgo agreed: “If they see that the community’s not using this resource, they would be in their right to pack up and leave. And so that is why I am inviting the community to come help us push through and use this incredibly efficient tool that we have.”
“If we lose this resource,” she continued, “what’s left is not as efficient.”
Monday’s announcement about the NRG Park clinic came after Friday’s news that Harris County was getting rid of its vaccine waitlist system and replacing it with an online portal where residents can make appointments to get vaccinated. Hidalgo said Monday that residents who prefer having an appointment on the books can still register ahead to get vaccinated at the NRG Park site, but the clinic will also accept those who drive or even walk-up to the site without an appointment.
Even though there are over 77 places where locals can get vaccinated in Harris County, Hidalgo said it wouldn’t be feasible to just shift the thousands and thousands of Pfizer vaccine doses sent to the NRG Park clinic out to those smaller locations. The main issue is storage: Pfizer’s vaccine has to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures in specialized medical freezers that most area vaccine clinics don’t have. Most of those clinics typically use the Moderna vaccine, which can be stored safely at much higher temperatures.
Hidalgo said the recent pause in the use of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine due to reports that six women between 18 and 48 out of the over 6.8 million U.S. residents who received that vaccine came down with rare side effects may have something to do with the lower local demand for vaccinations.
While that news may have scared off some locals from getting even the Pfizer or Moderna shots, Hidalgo made the point that “some people only wanted the Johnson & Johnson vaccine” since it’s a one-and-done shot, “so [they may be] waiting to see if the pause will be lifted.”
“There’s [also] a lot of misinformation that’s spreading online” about the vaccines, Hidalgo said.
Dr. Maria Rivera of Harris County Public Health stressed that if the local vaccination rate slows down too much, then “we’re going to see an increase in cases again. We’re going to see an increase in the positivity rate, and we’re going to see an increase in hospitalizations.”
Given the recent plateau in the county’s coronavirus test positivity rate at just under 9 percent for the past few weeks, Rivera said there’s cause for concern among local health officials that a dip in how quickly Harris County residents are getting vaccinated could lead to a COVID-19 surge similar to what other parts of the country like Michigan are currently experiencing. Given that the positivity rate and local COVID-19 hospitalizations are higher now than they were before previous surges, a surge right now is something the county just can’t afford, Rivera said.
“If anything were to start increasing again, we’re already not starting at the best place. We’re not starting at a low, low level,” she said, “and so we urge the community to come out here and get vaccinated. We’re trying to make it as easy as possible.”
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