As the Houston region’s leaders urge residents to get vaccinated as more and more people become hospitalized with coronavirus, public health experts say it’s worth noting the disparity in vaccination rates across the area.
Misinformation has played a role in stopping some residents from getting vaccinated, but so too has a lack of access of hospitals and healthcare providers, poor transportation and language barriers, among other reasons, according to those who’ve studied the matter.
In the Leader’s coverage area alone, the vaccination rate varied drastically by zip code. For instance, some 70 percent of residents were vaccinated in the Heights zip code, compared to some 36 percent of residents in the zip code comprising Acres Homes.
As of Monday, the city had 234,666 total COVID-19 cases, according to the Houston Health Department (HHD).
Statewide, 66.88 percent of Texans have been fully vaccinated, and 47.6 percent of Harris County residents have been fully vaccinated.
Among them is Jennifer Hilliard, who said she resided within the 77018 ZIP code. She said three out of four people in her family have been fully vaccinated, except for her youngest son, who is younger than 12 and not yet eligible for the vaccine.
“(We got) vaccinated to protect my youngest son who can't be vaccinated and is vulnerable (due to his asthma), for those that are vulnerable in my community — anyone can spread it, vaccinated or not — and vaccinations are how we get back to ‘normal.’ Plus, over 300 million people have this shot now and we want to reduce our risk of serious illness and hospitalization.”
But others, even those who say they have gotten the vaccine, aren’t confident in the efficacy of the shot, like Garden Oaks resident Mike Brown. Brown is a production manager for The Human Jib, a film and TV production equipment company.
“Two of my family members both got COVID and ended up in the hospital after being fully vaccinated two months earlier,” Brown said.
On Monday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for individuals 16 years of age and older. It remains under emergency use authorization for people from age 12 to 15.
Of the six ZIP codes served by The Leader, 55.6 percent of approximately 116,368 residents have been fully vaccinated. But within the individual zip codes, the rates varied.
Several factors help account for the lower vaccination rates in some areas compared to others, said Porifirio Villarreal, a spokesperson for the health department.
“There are barriers to transportation,” Villarreal said. “In some cases, there may be linguistic isolations. You have different Spanish-speaking populations that may live in the Near Northside and Independence Heights.”
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 39 percent of residents in the 77091 zip code are Hispanic or Latino and 26 percent of all families are below the poverty line. In 77092, 64 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino and 23 percent of all families are below the poverty line.
Similarly, 20 percent of families are below the poverty line in 77009, where 66 percent of residents are Hispanic or Latino.
By contrast, in 77007, 77008, and 77018 more than 70 percent of residents are white.
Meanwhile, neighborhoods like Lazybrook and Garden Oaks or Oak Forest will have more access to the healthcare system, Villarreal said.
Memorial Hermann Health System is one of several healthcare providers with a location in the Heights and in close proximity to the rest of the Greater Heights.
There are four vaccine providers within a mile of the 77007 ZIP code and five within one mile of the 77008 and 77018 ZIP codes, according to vaccines.gov. There is just one provider within a mile of the 77009 ZIP code (including the Near Northside) and one each within a mile of the 77091 and 77092 ZIP codes.
People who have a primary care doctor or a clinic they regularly visit will be more likely to receive notifications and reminders to get their first or second vaccination dose, Villarreal said.
“And then you compare that to the people who are in poverty, and they don't have a medical home,” Villarreal said. “They're not getting those prompts. And so that certainly is a barrier.”
Since the vaccine became more widely-available in April, members of the health department have gone door-to-door offering information about vaccination sites and in-home vaccination appointments, according to Villarreal. The elderly and military veterans are among those who can call 832-393-4301 to see if they are eligible for an in-home vaccine, he said.
More recently, some local officials have taken steps to try to incentivize residents to get vaccinated.
On Aug. 17, Harris County Judge Hidalgo announced a $100 cash card incentive for residents who receive their first COVID-19 vaccine dose at any Harris County Public Health site.
The program runs through Aug. 31 and will be funded using American Rescue Plan dollars, according to Rafael Lemaitre, Hidalgo’s communications director.
Residents can find more information at http://readyharris.org or by calling 832-927-8787.
On Aug. 2, HHD began offering $25 gift cards to people who complete their vaccination series within 42 days of receiving their first dose at a health department health center or multi-service center clinic.
The gift card incentive program was funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) according to a news release from the city.
Villarreal said the delta variant has caused an uptick in cases and some “breakthrough” cases of positive COVID-19 tests after being fully vaccinated.
The delta variant is more than twice as contagious as other COVID strains and may cause more severe illness, particularly among the unvaccinated, according to the CDC.
But the number of breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated that have resulted in hospitalizations among the 168 million fully vaccinated Americans is almost nonexistent, measuring up at 7,887 non-fatal hospitalizations (0.0046 percent) and 1,829 deaths nationwide, according to the CDC.
“Fully vaccinated people with delta variant breakthrough infections can spread the virus to others. However, vaccinated people appear to be infectious for a shorter period,” according to a CDC report.
Among adults from age 65–74 the effectiveness of full vaccination for preventing hospitalization was 96 percent for Pfizer-BioNTech, 96 percent for Moderna, and 84 percent for Janssen COVID-19 vaccines, according to another recent CDC report.
The same report said for adults 75 or younger, the effectiveness of full vaccination for preventing hospitalization was 91 percent for Pfizer-BioNTech, 96 percent for Moderna, and 85 percent for Janssen COVID-19 vaccines.
Mary Krueger, an Oak Forest resident and pediatrician at Blue Fish Pediatrics, said it is important to have a primary care physician to discuss and recommend which vaccine might be best for them.
“If you don’t have (a primary care doctor) who you can bounce those ideas off,” Krueger said, “or someone who they can discuss their reservations with, they might just say ‘hey, I’m not going to deal with this.’”
Reeta Achari, a physician who both lives and operates her medical practice in the Heights, said there is “a lot of vaccine hesitancy” locally.
“There's a lot of misinformation and disinformation surrounding the vaccine,” Achari said. “And it's become very difficult to convince people anymore, because most people have good information. But some people don't have good information. But they are all basing their determination on the information they have, whether it's real or not. And so, as physicians, we are fighting the vaccine hesitancy with all the tools we can, and respectfully trying to so convinced people that by getting the vaccine, you're helping yourself, you're helping your community and you are protecting our future generation, the children who are not able to be vaccinated.”
For example, one member of a Facebook group for Garden Oaks residents commented on a post seeking comments from area residents for this story with a widely-debunked claim that 14,000 people had died within 72 hours of receiving the vaccine.
According to the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), only three deaths have been linked to blood clots caused by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. While some people have died from COVID-19 after being vaccinated, there is no evidence that the vaccine caused those deaths, according to the CDC.
Achari also said low-income families may not have time to go and get a vaccine because they are working multiple jobs to support their household and others may not know the vaccines are free and covered by the federal CARES Act.
She said cultural differences in a multicultural city like Houston could be responsible for some forms of vaccine hesitancy.
“In Houston, we are the most diverse city in the country,” Achari said. “And so, people come from places in the world to here and those other places in the world were suspicious of vaccines, those other places in the world still continue to be suspicious of vaccines. So, we need to overcome our vaccine hesitancy here. But then the world will also have to overcome its vaccine hesitancy in order for us to get through this pandemic.”
Achari said she believes the city needs to rally around achieving herd immunity like the community did in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017.
“We're fighting a war against this virus,” Achari said. We need to behave like we are together, united against an enemy.” I tell (my patients), instead of helping your neighbor tear out sheetrock (after Hurricane Harvey), think of rolling up your sleeves and getting your shot as helping your neighbor.”
Local Vaccination Rates
Below is a zip code-by-zip code breakdown of COVID-19 vaccination rates in the area served by The Leader, with estimated 2019 populations from the U.S. Census Bureau and the number of fully vaccinated residents from the Texas Department of State Health Services as of Monday.
ZIP Vaccinated Population Percentage
77007 29,400 40,080 73.3
77008 25,403 34,895 72.8
77009 20,136 36,147 55.7
77018 14,893 28,229 52.8
77091 10,024 27,750 36.1
77092 16,512 38,458 42.9
Total 116,368 205,559 56.6