Health & Science

A $100 vaccine incentive may have spurred 29,000 people in Harris County to get their first shot

A county public heath data analysis found roughly 28,700 people getting vaccinated who otherwise wouldn’t do so as of Sept. 18, the last day of available data.

Lina Hidalgo at a vaccination site in Spring Branch, on April 1, 2021.
Lucio Vasquez / Houston Public Media
Lina Hidalgo at a vaccination site in Spring Branch, on April 1, 2021.

About 29,000 Harris County residents who would otherwise go unvaccinated received their first shot in the last month and a half thanks to a $100 incentive, according to Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

A public heath data analysis shared with Houston Public Media found an uptick in vaccinations after Aug. 17, when Hidalgo announced that anyone getting a first shot at a Harris County Public Health vaccination site would receive a $100 cash card. That was followed by a second surge after the program was expanded on Aug. 26 to include any provider in the county.

The result, according to the county, was roughly 28,700 people getting vaccinated who otherwise wouldn’t do so as of Sept. 18 — the last day of available data. Hidalgo said she expected that number to be above 30,000 through Thursday, the last day of the incentive program.

“Thirty-thousand people would not have gotten the vaccine were it not for the program,” Hidalgo said. “That’s 30,000 people who almost have a 0% chance of dying from COVID, who have an extremely low chance of being hospitalized by it, and who have a much, much lower chance of transmitting COVID to their loved ones. So, I would say that’s a victory.”

The analysis looked at the seven-day average of first doses in Harris County and compared it to the collective average in Galveston, Brazoria, Montgomery and Fort Bend counties. Harris and the combined counties followed a similar pattern from July through mid-August, beginning to see a decline around Aug. 11.

But while those four counties saw their rates continue to decline, Harris County saw a noticeable increase from the beginning of the program through early September. Researchers then looked at the raw number totals in that gap between Harris and those surrounding counties to estimate the number of additional people who received their first shot.

*Chart data scaled to peak value for comparison.
*Chart data scaled to peak value for comparison.

What’s more, the analysis only counted Harris County residents, not those who traveled to Harris County from other areas, leading researchers to believe the analysis could be an undercount.

Getting a first shot doesn’t guarantee those people who participated will return for a second dose, though the county says its rate of follow-up is more than 96%. There is no incentive for a second shot.

The county originally spent $2.3 million to run the program through Aug. 31, pulling from $900 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds. Within its first week, county officials said the number of people looking to get vaccinated at county sites increased by more than 500%.

Nearly 76% of all eligible Harris County residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine as of Friday morning. That’s higher than the state of Texas as a whole, of which 71% of the eligible population has received at least a first shot. The total vaccination rate in Harris County is about 65%.

Hidalgo said she expected the fully vaccinated number to “catch up” in a matter of weeks.

“Very soon, 75% of our population will be fully vaccinated, and we’re seeing those hospital numbers drop at an accelerating rate,” Hidalgo said. “Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had to recalibrate our projections on the kind of positive side, progress side. I think some of that, undoubtedly, we can attribute to vaccines.”

El Paso County announced on Sept. 20 that the city of El Paso was the largest in the state to reach what it called “herd immunity” — a 75% vaccination rate. Scientists have disputed that number, claiming the vaccination rate needed to naturally control the virus in a given area is closer to 85%.

That number also doesn’t account for unknown variants, which could continue to emerge without higher levels of vaccination, according to medical experts.

In a video released by the U.S. Department of State on Thursday, the president’s chief medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci stressed that an increase in the vaccination rate is an effective way of keeping those variants at bay.

“If you suppress the free distribution, spreading and transmission, the virus will absolutely do a very good job to prevent the emergence of mutations, which ultimately lead to the emergence of variants,” Fauci said.