On the first day that all Texans 16 and older became eligible to get vaccinated against COVID-19, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stopped by the University of Houston to urge local college students to sign-up for a coronavirus vaccine as quickly as they can.
The pro-vaccine pep rally at UH came on the heels of a new promise from President Joe Biden that nearly all U.S. adults will qualify for vaccines within the next three weeks, and after the director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control warned that a fourth wave of COVID-19 infectious could hit if states keep loosening local restrictions.
Turner’s remarks on Monday heralded the kick-off of a friendly contest between UH, Texas Southern University, the University of St. Thomas and Lone Star College System to see which school can get the most students and alums vaccinated in the weeks ahead.
“As young Houstonians, you have a responsibility to try to prevent large numbers of vulnerable people, such as your parents and older residents from contracting the virus and possibly spreading it,” Turner said, imploring local college students to try and get vaccinated as soon as possible.
Dr. David Persse, the city’s chief medical officer, said that “This is exactly the time where we need to shift gears and start getting young people vaccinated,” now that a majority of vulnerable Texans over 65 are vaccinated.
Clearly smiling behind his mask, Persse touted the results of a new study by the CDC published Monday showing that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines “are now known to be 90 percent effective” at preventing all coronavirus infections, even asymptomatic ones that could lead folks to become silent carriers of the virus.
The CDC study followed frontline workers at higher risk than the general population of getting COVID-19, and its results are especially encouraging considering that the previous studies run by the two vaccine manufacturers only measured the vaccines’ effectiveness at stopping symptomatic infections.
Still, Persse said it’s not time to declare victory. “While the numbers are getting better and better here in Houston, we are hearing that they’re getting worse in other parts of the nation,” he said, warning that the current downward trends in cases and local hospitalizations could only be a deceptive “eye of the storm” if enough folks don’t stay diligent and delay getting vaccinated.
Pointing to concerning coronavirus case upticks in many other states across the country, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Monday that she worries “impending doom” may be on the horizon due to the increasing prevalence of easily-spread coronavirus variants from other countries hitting right as many states, like Texas, have decided to dramatically rollback coronavirus prevention strategies like mask mandates and business restrictions.
“Right now, I’m scared,” Walensky said, explaining that many parts of the United States could be on the cusp of a deadly fourth wave of infections, even as vaccinations continue to increase each day.
Walenskey said she plans to speak to governors across the country tomorrow to warn about the perils of reopening businesses and loosening restrictions too quickly.
Biden hit that same note in a speech Monday. “I’m reiterating my call for every governor, mayor and local leader to maintain and reinstate the mask mandate. Please, this is not politics. Reinstate the mandate if you let it down, and businesses should require masks as well,” he said. Biden also announced that 90 percent of adults in the country will be eligible for a vaccine, and will live within five miles of at least one vaccine provider, by April 19.
Vaccine demand is still high in the Houston area, especially now that all adults are eligible. Houston Health Department spokesman Porfirio Villareal said that when the city health department made 5,000 new appointments available on Sunday morning to get a shot between April 1st and 3rd, all the slots had filled “within that hour,” which is admittedly a good bit longer than the mere minutes it took for thousands of city vaccine appointments to be filled just a few weeks ago.
The Department of State Health Services on Monday launched the Texas Public Health Vaccine Scheduler, an online vaccine registration portal, which lets all Texans register and give their preferences for where and which day of the week they’d like to get an appointment. The state health department will then do its best to find an vaccination opening from a nearby provider, but department spokesman Chris Van Deusen said the new website isn’t meant to be the only place Texans register for a vaccine.
He explained that the site will mostly help folks find appointments in more rural parts of the state and smaller towns that don’t have robust public health systems. Big cities like Houston and counties like Harris County, as well as large private vaccine providers like H-E-B will likely continue using their own registration systems. “We wanted to kind of offer a system that some of the other health departments could join and kind of bring some of those things together,” Van Deusen said.
When Texans register for an account on the state's website, they’re even required to check a box acknowledging that the state health department’s website isn’t their only option, and that they “can and should pursue other COVID-19 vaccine scheduling systems around the state.”
With so many of the big vaccination sites in the Houston area catering to folks with cars, like the drive-thru mega-sites at NRG Park, Delmar Stadium and The Parking Spot parking lot at George Bush Airport, some have worried that locals who don’t or can’t drive will have a tougher time getting their vaccine shots. But Dr. Stephen Williams, director of the Houston Health Department, said Monday that the city has been strategically setting up a rotating series of community vaccination clinics in parts of the town within walking distance of areas where more people rely on public transportation to get by.
He said that the health department is already doing a limited number of in-home vaccinations for folks who are truly homebound, and hopes that increased vaccine allotments in the weeks ahead will let his team set up mobile vaccination clinics that can drive to pockets of the town where a lot of people don’t have cars, like local public housing projects. Williams also said that Houstonians with transportation issues can call the Area Agency on Aging’s vaccine hotline at 832-393-4301 for city assistance getting to and from vaccination sites.
When the state announced last week that all adults would be eligible to get vaccinated as of March 29, people wondered if that meant Texas was about to get a hell of a lot more vaccines to address the vastly expanded pool of residents that qualify for a shot. But Williams said there hasn’t been a big surge in vaccine availability across the state, at least not yet.
“I’m a member of the Expert Vaccine Advisory Panel, and during the discussion today we were looking at the fact that Moderna has pretty much leveled-off and stayed steady,” Williams said. “We’ve seen some increases in the Pfizer vaccine,” he continued, “and everyone knows that [Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine] is going to be limited for at least another two weeks or so.”
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