Health & Science

Harris County Opens 55,000 New Vaccine Slots After Unexpected Drop In Demand

Six out of nearly 7 million people who received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine had a potentially dangerous side effect — or roughly 0.00000088% of all patients. But officials are afraid that’s led to a lack of trust.

Lina Hidalgo gets a vaccine dose on April 1, 2021.

Harris County has opened up 55,000 new first-come, first-served vaccination appointments next week after an unexpected drop in local demand.

Vaccine supply had lagged demand for months, as fewer doses were coming in to the county than doses available. But recently, that rush in demand has dropped, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

“Some of it is vaccine hesitancy,” Hidalgo said. “Part of it, of course, may be community concerns stemming from the fact that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has now had to be paused.”

The county’s on-demand registration portal launched Friday.

Just about 25% of the region is vaccinated, Hidalgo said — significantly less than the 75-80% researchers say is needed for herd immunity.

“We know how to beat it,” Hidalgo said. “We gotta raise those numbers. And now it's as easy as ever, no waitlist. Go register, pick a time, get your shot.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended providers pause usage of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine out of “an abundance of caution,” after six people across the country developing a rare blood clot disorder.

Nearly 7 million people received the vaccine, meaning roughly 0.00000088% of all patients developed the disorder.

But despite the near-zero percent chance of getting the potentially harmful side effect, conspiracy theories have run rampant, and public health experts are concerned trust in the vaccines may have been shaken.

Dr. Andrea Caracostis, CEO of HOPE Clinics, said she was excited to offer the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to her patients. Her office has already done two rounds, and was looking forward to doing much more because it gave her the opportunity to reach more people.

“I thought, ‘oh, my god, finally, one jab,'” she said. “You don’t know how hard it is to give two shots four weeks apart. You know, people get sick, they don’t show up.”

Now, she said she thinks people will be much more hesitant.

“(Johnson & Johnson) are going to have to do a lot of damage control to be able to get back in the game,” she said.

Beyond hesitancy, vaccine advocates are concerned that the Johnson & Johnson pause also created access issues. The fear is that overall demand will dip in vulnerable communities without the one-shot vaccine available for distribution.

"It's just very convenient to come for one day and get everyone vaccinated," said Allison Winnike, president & CEO of the Immunization Partnership. "When you think of folks who are in remote areas, or even in urban areas but don't have good transportation options, having the convenience of one dose is really fantastic.”

Winnike previously advocated for the state to assist local public health departments in their efforts to reach vulnerable communities by sending recommendations to the state’s Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel. The panel had previously been in charge of assigning priority access groups.

Now, she said, they could be a helpful resource in providing local governments what they need to reach people most at risk for COVID, but have still not been vaccinated

"There still hasn’t been sort of a comprehensive response," Winnike said. “It would be helpful if the state could provide down to local communities, information about how to best engage with community members, and on understanding the questions that local community members may have."

Vaccine providers affiliated with the Houston Health Department are also seeing a noticeable decrease in demand.

Curative, a company that cities nationwide are turning to for help with COVID-19 testing and vaccinations, began operating a testing site on Reed Road by NRG Stadium on April 1. Operators there agree with Hidalgo's fears that the Johnson and Johnson vaccine news may be lowering people's confidence in coming out to get vaccinated.

"We normally open our appointments on Monday, and every Monday our appointments tend to book out within two to three hours tops,” said Karlee Blystone with Curative’s Houston mobile field operations. But Blystone said that by Thursday afternoon, the group had not booked all of its appointments. “So I think there is a correlation," she said.

With an increasing rate of no-shows from last week, Blystone said she immediately contacted the communications and marketing team as well as the city’s marketing team to try and get the word out they had open appointments.

Luckily, the site hasn't had to throw out any vaccines, which is something they were concerned about.

“That's our main goal, is not to waste any vaccines," said Nasha Parker, a nurse lead for Curative in Houston. “Of course when we're opening viles, we have to be very careful and strategic about when we do open a vile. And that's why this is concerning for us, because we want more patients so we can draw more doses and get more people vaccinated.”

But not everyone agrees Johnson and Johnson is the problem.

Memorial Hermann Hospital has seen a dip in demand at their two-day drivethru vaccination clinic in Sugar Land. However, operators there don't believe it's a Johnson and Johnson issue as much as it is an outreach problem.

The hospital is seeing a decrease in patients that it had been targeting: first responders, people 65 years and older, and those with underlying health conditions.

Now, hospitals and other providers need to put more resources into targeting younger people, according to Binita Patel, director of pharmacy for Memorial Hermann. In their case, the hospital has seen a jump in patients between the ages of 30 and 40, Patel said.

“We're seeing that those are the ones that we really need to focus our targets on to make sure they get vaccinated," she said.

To do that, Memorial Hermann began accepting walk-ins Thursday and Friday. Patel said it’s part of a new strategy the hospital is using to reach more of the general population.

"Not everyone has access to phones or internet to be able to even schedule,” Patel said.”So those that are driving by, that are like ‘hey, I want to get a vaccine,’ I see all these people. And so one of our thoughts was, ‘yes, lets go ahead and vaccinate as many people as we can.’"

Additional reporting by Paul DeBenedetto.

Sara Willa Ernst contributed to this report. She is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Sara’s work at Houston Public Media is made possible with support from KERA in Dallas.

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