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Harvey Recovery Has Lessons For COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

Former At-Large Houston City Council Member Melissa Noriega aided with Harvey recovery efforts in her work with BakerRipley

Robert Luckey, a 39-year-old registered nurse in the Memorial Hermann COVID-19 ICU, received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 15, 2020.

Houston and Harris County have begun an immunization campaign against COVID-19. But troubles and glitches slowed down the opening weekend. Houston's call-in registration center crashed, and Harris County was forced to shut down its registration after people who weren't eligible applied anyway.

To learn more about the vaccine rollout, and how it could be improved, Houston Public Media spoke with former at-large Houston City Council member and civic leader Melissa Noriega, who aided with recovery efforts after Hurricane Harvey.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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What went wrong with the rollout of the vaccine at the Houston city and Harris County levels over the weekend?

I'm not sure anything went wrong. What happened was what you would expect. There would be glitches and things to overcome, and then the city, I thought, did actually pretty well continuing to move forward no matter what. When the phone lines went down, they just made an announcement to go show up in person, and they kept giving shots, and they got through them all, which was the important thing.

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And as far as the county's issue with word getting out to people that were not in the first eligible group?

I think there was just confusion at the beginning. It's a great example of why it's important to have some central authority making decisions, and they haven't done that. It's sort of been the wild, wild West.

What could be done to improve the process?

This is a disaster. It's actually not terribly different (from) Hurricane Harvey or the kinds of things Houstonians have dealt with. There's the central task of vaccinating Houston folks, and then there's the peripheral issues of evictions, needing food, services, people being sick. And most of what's gone on with the vaccination up until now has included needing a car. There're lots of neighborhoods in Houston where people don't drive or have cars, or you have seniors that no longer drive, or people that can't afford cars. So, you need some kind of neighborhood effort.

During Harvey, there's an initial response, and then you have a recovery, and the county and the city worked very hard and worked together to create a recovery effort that was neighborhood based. They used nonprofits like BakerRipley (Note: Noriega was vice president of BakerRipley from December 2015 through December 2018), the city, the county, to create neighborhood restoration centers, where people could go and get information and food and resources. And it was a place that you could reach out and touch a whole community that might or might not be available to you at some kind of level where people have Twitter or Facebook or can call.

What do you think people ought to keep in mind as the rollout of the vaccine continues?

Those of us out in the community have got to be patient and keep trying. I had several people comment that they'd made 30 phone calls before they connected. I think if people are patient, they don't try to jump the line with the tiers, and they move forward, people will get this in Houston. We can do this. We're as good at this as anybody, particularly with The Medical Center and our previous experiences with disasters, but we need a neighborhood effort where we don't miss people.

One of the things that we could do, besides what I've already mentioned: seniors have registered with 211 to be evacuated. They're on a list somewhere saying, ‘I don't have a car,' or, ‘I can't get myself out of the water.' Those would be people that would need help getting a shot as well. There's overlap and overlay, and using a robust 211 system, creating neighborhood recovery centers for the issues that go with this, including not having enough food, and using the experiences that we've already had with these countywide and citywide strategy committees is what I would recommend.

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media's coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media's business reporter, covering the oil...

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