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Coronavirus In Greater Houston: City Temporarily Moving Vaccine Clinic To Minute Maid Park

As Texas moves into Phase 1B, people over 65 and those at least 16 with underlying chronic health conditions can begin receiving their first doses of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Sylvester Turner / Twitter
Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña gets his first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Jan. 5, 2020.

This story has been updated to clarify that 2,000 people received doses of a COVID-19 vaccine through Houston’s public vaccination sites, while more than 56,000 have been vaccinated in Harris County overall.

This is part of Houston Public Media’s ongoing coronavirus coverage. Click here to see more of our coronavirus news and resources.

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Updated 6:48 p.m. CT Thursday

The city will briefly close its public vaccine clinic and reopen Saturday at Minute Maid Park, Mayor Sylvester Turner said. But the change of venue from the Bayou City Event Center won’t be the launch of a so-called “mega site” Turner had said he hoped to open. That site is pushed back due to lack of supply from the state, Turner said.

The site is only open to those who have appointments at the Bayou City clinic, which will close for an unrelated weekend event.

Turner said the state would be providing more doses next week. The Houston Health Department is in the process of contacting people with appointments to inform them of the new location.

Updated 12:17 p.m. CT Wednesday

Undocumented immigrants are among those eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to the Harris County Judge's Office. Judge Lina Hidalgo said that people seeking to get the vaccine will only be asked for proof of employment for health care workers, or to verify their age.

The COVID-19 vaccine is available to Houstonians over 65 or with underlying chronic health conditions.

“We are told, and certainly the county distribution and from what I know about the private and non-government entities distributing the vaccine, nobody is denying to undocumented people,” Hidalgo said. “All of us recognize we are all in this together.”

The news came during remarks Hidalgo made Tuesday, in which she announced the region had surpassed a threshold set by Gov. Greg Abbott triggering tougher COVID-19 restrictions. Under those new restrictions, all bars will close and businesses must reduce indoor capacity to 50%.

Economic development organization the Greater Houston Partnership said it was “unfortunate” to scale back certain businesses per Abbott's order, but called “prudent given the very serious situation we are facing in the Houston region.”

“We hope all Houstonians will remember that the COVID-19 virus is still very much with us and will be even more vigilant in reducing contact with individuals outside their own households,” read a statement from Bob Harvey, president and CEO of the Greater Houston Partnership. “While the roll-out of the vaccines provides a light at the end of the tunnel, we are still several months away from a return to normal and a path to a full economic recovery. In the meantime, we must do the things we all know to do: wear a mask, wash your hands and maintain your distance – and at this moment, limit your gatherings with others.”

Updated 8:38 p.m. CT Tuesday

Fort Bend County has received its first shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine and has started vaccinating front line health care workers, and some of those most at risk for COVID-19.

Right now, 5,000 qualified people are registered in the county’s system to receive vaccines when more become available. But Fort Bend County Judge KP George said he doesn’t know when the state will be able to deliver the next round of doses.

Fort Bend County residents are currently unable to schedule vaccine appointments online until the county receives additional doses. But Barbara Martinez, who manages clinical health services for the Fort Bend County Health Department, said everyone should get a vaccine when they have the chance.

“I know that it seems like these vaccines were put out almost immediately,” Martinez said. “But this is technology that our scientists have been working on for numerous years.”

Updated 8:26 p.m. CT Tuesday

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Tuesday said Houston can achieve herd immunity from COVID-19 in just under five months if enough people take the coronavirus vaccine — and if there's enough supply.

The city needs to get to 400,000 doses monthly with hospitals, pharmacies and clinics working together with public health departments to administer the vaccine, he told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen.

“If collectively, every outlet for example in the city of Houston were providing vaccines to about 400,000 a month, then I think after about four-and-a-half months we would be in a good position.”

Turner told Houston Matters that the city's sole vaccination clinic right now can administer 80 doses an hour. Right now the city is receiving 13,000 doses a week from the state — barely enough to vaccinate high-risk groups.

The Houston region has crossed a threshold that will tighten COVID-19 restrictions, including forcing indoor businesses to go back to 50% occupancy. The area has tallied seven straight days in which COVID-19 patients made up 15% or more of hospitalizations across the area.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said even if she imposes new limits, precautions may not be as strong in other parts of the state, and she’s urging local residents to keep following safety guidelines.

“We need our hospitalizations to slow down, to flatten, and to go downwards,” she said Tuesday. “Currently, none of that is happening. Quite the opposite.”

Updated 4:36 p.m. CT Monday

Houston could be headed toward a COVID-19 spike as bad or worse than July, when a post-Memorial Day surge reversed previous gains made in the region, according to one Memorial Hermann Hospital official.

Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Dr. James McCarthy told Houston Matters host Craig Cohen on Monday that the hospital has had a threefold increase in admissions, and that ICU capacity has increased significantly.

There’s even a high possibility hospital could exceed July capacity numbers, McCarthy said.

“We're right back, very close to where we were during our July spike,” he said. “We've had exactly what was predicted. We've had a steady increase in cases over the last several weeks following the Thanksgiving holiday and the first part of new years holiday.”

Memorial Hermann has responded by converting rooms into ICU rooms, and staffing for additional capacity, including asking health care workers to take extra shifts. They’ve also asked for additional help from less busy areas, and have begun to use a “non-traditional” workforce — people who don't normally work in the ICU — to help out.

He added that there's a good chance elective surgeries will be reduced across the region.

"They just need those beds,” McCarthy said. “And those staff that are currently working in the operating rooms, the nurses, those can be redeployed to help manage the patients on the floors.”

McCarthy also said the hospital is hoping to vaccinate more than 20,000 people a week by the beginning of next week. But setting up has been a challenge: the hospital has had to build a scheduling system, similar to citywide issues with scheduling. And vaccine allocations have not been predictable.

About 700,000 people are over the age of 65 in the Greater Houston area — the bulk of the population eligible to receive the vaccine as part of Phase 1B.

That demand exceeds the supply, McCarthy said.

"It's simply impossible,” he said. “We can't vaccinate 700,000 people in two weeks. This will take us a couple months to get through.”

Updated 4:25 p.m. CT Monday

Appointments at a newly opened public clinic in Houston are booked through the end of the month, Mayor Sylvester Turner said Monday.

The first free public COVID-19 vaccination clinic opened up this weekend, with the mayor calling the public response “massive.” The Houston Health Departmentsaid 730 people received their first dose of the vaccine at the Bayou City Event Center location Monday. On Saturday, 1,108 people were vaccinated, and 986 were vaccinated Sunday.

But the department is no longer taking additional vaccine appointments, though Mayor Turner did say the city was hoping to expand capacity, and build what he called a “mega site” for people to get vaccinated. Turner said he hoped the site would be available Saturday, though he did not offer specifics.

As of Monday, 32% of ICU beds in Harris County hospitals are filled with COVID-19 patients, with 502 people in need of intensive care right now. That number continues to steadily rise.

Texas Medical Center hospitals also collectively reported an average of 310 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per day last week. That number is also up: Last month, there were 174 new COVID-19 hospitalizations a day at TMC insititutions.

Updated 4:08 p.m. CT Monday

Mayor Sylvester Turner gets his first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Jan. 5, 2020.
Sylvester Turner / Twitter
Mayor Sylvester Turner gets his first COVID-19 vaccine dose on Jan. 5, 2020.

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Monday was the latest politician to receive his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, using the occasion to urge the public to get their shots once they qualify — especially people of color.

At a Monday afternoon press conference, Turner — joined by Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and other city officials — noted that while spending hours at the city’s new public vaccination clinic over the weekend Black, Hispanic and Asian Houstonians were underrepresented among those getting vaccinated.

Stressing that he recognized the fear associated with historic, systemic racism in health care, Turner said getting vaccinated is the only way to ensure the region eventually turns a corner.

“For people of color in our community, in this diverse community: this is not the Tuskegee Project,” Turner said, referring to a 40-year program in the United States in which Black Americans were secretly infected with syphilis as part of a government study of the disease.

“This is not the time for people of color to stay away from the vaccine,” Turner said. “This is time for the most diverse community to come together like never before.”

The mayor added that the city was setting up a vaccine “mega site” on Saturday, but did not provide any specifics on the plan.

Even as vaccinations continue in Texas and beyond, Turner and Houston health authority Dr. David Persse painted a dire health picture in Houston, as ICUs both reached 100% capacity and the 14-day average positivity rate inside Houston hit 13.9%. And numbers could begin to get worse, as a new, more contagious strain of the virus has arrived in the U.S. in several states — though it does not appear to be more deadly, nor is it likely to be vaccine resistant, according to Persse.

Updated 2:58 p.m. CT Monday

Houston remains the only public entity across the region regularly accepting appointments for vaccinations, even as slots fill up quickly with the Houston Health Department.

Harris County took down its COVID-19 vaccination portal late Friday after it mistakenly allowed people who did not qualify to sign up.

Fort Bend County says it still hasn't received any doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, and while County Judge KP George said he hopes the vaccine will arrive soon, he could not confirm with the state when that would be.

In Montgomery County, vaccines are being distributed through the Texas Department of State Health Services directly to hospitals, pharmacies, physicians' offices and clinics, according to the county’s public health department. The Public Health Clinic received just 100 doses of the Moderna vaccine, allocated to first responders, Public Health staff, health care workers and employees. The county itself is not involved in mass distribution to the public. When vaccines do become available, MCPHD will begin to vaccinate some of the general public that fit the Phase 1 criteria.

And Galveston County is currently not accepting appointments until its second vaccine shipment. Once that shipment comes in, the Galveston County Health District said it will again begin scheduling appointments on its website.

To see all free vaccination sites across Texas, click here

Updated 12:31 p.m. CT Monday

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2020.
Mary Benton / Twitter
Mayor Sylvester Turner on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2020.

About 2,000 people in Houston received the first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine from the city’s public vaccination clinic over the weekend, with more than 377,000 Texans overall receiving their first dose as of Sunday, according to city and state officials. In total, more than 56,000 people had been vaccinated across Harris County between public and private sites since vaccinations began last month.

The news came after a shaky start in the region. In Houston, officials set up a call-in number to schedule appointments, leading to an overwhelming volume of calls and a technology failure.

In Harris County, meanwhile, the public health department was forced to halt its COVID-19 vaccine registration after granting access to non-qualified patients, according to the Houston Chronicle.

Fort Bend County is reporting it still hasn’t received any doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, despite being one of the largest counties in Texas. County Judge KP George said he hopes the vaccine will arrive soon, but that neither he nor the state can say precisely when.

"I don't want to blame this on anybody, but we really don't know,” George said Monday. “That's the problem, and (we even) got a message saying that we are getting a shipment, but we haven't gotten it.”

Phase 1-B of the state's vaccine distribution plan is already underway, allowing those who are 65 years and older, or those with certain medical conditions, to be vaccinated. Health care workers and people at least 16 years old with certain chronic health conditions are also qualified.

Nearly 2,000 people in Houston received their first dose of the vaccine over the weekend, according to city officials. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city is working to vaccinate 100,000 Houstonians in January.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Harris County have continued to steadily grow over the last two weeks. On Christmas Day, there were 1,104 COVID-19 patients needing treatment for COVID-19, and at the end of the day Sunday, Harris County Hospitals collectively reported 1,467 COVID-19 patients — 21.5 % of all patients currently hospitalized in the county.

At the end of the day Sunday, 466 COVID-19 patients were reported needing intensive care, but those patients are still taking up 30% of all ICU beds in the county.

Cases also continue to climb in the region, with 2,334 new positive tests reported by the Houston Health Department on the first two days of 2021. Of those, 86% were reported over the last 14 days.

There are currently 34,380 active COVID-19 cases in Greater Houston, and 2,656 people have died of COVID-19 in the region, according to Harris County Public Health.

The Houston Health Department on Monday launched a new portal to schedule vaccine appointments online.

Some state and local officials, meanwhile, have been encouraging the public to get vaccinated since the rollout began. Gov. Greg Abbott received his first dose in December, while Commissioner Rodney Ellis, state Sen. Borris Miles, and state representatives Harold Dutton and Garnet Coleman all received their vaccinations last week at an event to encourage Houston’s black community to sign up.

“It doesn't matter how many doses of vaccine that we have if people don't wanna go get it,” Coleman said Wednesday. “That's what we're here to do today, is to encourage people to get the vaccine.”

Mayor Turner was set to receive the vaccine Monday afternoon.

As vaccines are distributed throughout Texas, state officials are finding that vaccine distribution among rural and minority communities is incredibly uneven compared to larger, urban areas. Harris County, for example, has vaccinated nearly 30,000 people, while Liberty County has only vaccinated a little over 80, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who has also received her vaccination, proposed a federal protocol that could potentially fix what she called a failed distribution process.

As it stands, the federal government has left it up to the states to control vaccine distribution. A new bill would change that — if passed, vaccine distribution would be overseen by FEMA, and a plan would be created to put more emphasis on rural and minority communities.

“The bill, and this discussion with the transition team, will provide direct vaccine inoculation of persons in areas and locations where vulnerable populations are underperforming in the recipe of life saving vaccinations,” Jackson Lee said last week.