Texas eligibility expands but health experts fear impact of vaccine hesitancy

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Texas is expanding its vaccine availability to those 50 years and older, the age group that has made up 93% of COVID-19 deaths in Texas, in the state's 1C phase.

Texas' 1C phase is different from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's definition of the 1C Category. The state announced it will base the phases on ages, not occupation, which means some essential workers will not be included in this next rollout phase.

The 1C group includes about 5 million people. About 1 million from that age group have already received the vaccine, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. With groups 1A, 1B and 1C open, between 12 million to 14 million Texans will be eligible to get the vaccine.

On Thursday, Memorial Hermann announced it was opening appointments for people ages 50 and older to get vaccinated at its COVID-19 vaccine drive-thru clinic in Sugar Land. By Friday, the health system announced all appointments were booked.

Memorial Hermann also pushed ahead to vaccinate local educators after a federal directive last week moved all teachers and child care workers to the priority list.

SEE RELATED STORY: COVID-19 vaccine clinic dedicated to teachers for 2 days

"We call it teacher's week," said Binita Patel, vice president of pharmacy services at Memorial Hermann. "We are vaccinating over 5,000 teachers today and another 5,000 tomorrow. So to be able to support and continue to provide herd immunity and it starts with our teachers who teach our young kids. So, exciting day today."

In Harris County, 388,426 people have been fully vaccinated as of March 14.

In order for the Houston area to reach herd immunity by late summer, health experts estimate about 50,000 people would need to be vaccinated a day.

SEE RELATED STORY: When could we reach herd immunity?

"I think it's terrific that we are expanding who can get the vaccine, and part of the reason we can do it is because there's more vaccine out there," said Dr. Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health.

While more people are getting vaccinated, Dr. Troisi said there is still some vaccine hesitancy, with people concerned about how the vaccine was produced and wanting to postpone their vaccination.

"There is some concern that the vaccine was developed quickly or the vaccines were developed quickly and yes, they were but no safety protocols were skipped," Dr. Troisi said. "They were just done at the same time as other things so the vaccine could be rolled out faster, and our technology has gotten better since the last vaccine that was developed. I would also urge people it is OK to have questions. You should have questions and do research, but what I would advise is to get your information from a credible source."

Dr. Troisi said she has also heard debate regarding the Johnson & Johnson single-dose COVID-19 vaccine efficacy rate and people wanting to choose which vaccine they get. She said people may not have a choice due to vaccine supply, but she reassures the community that all three vaccines are effective in preventing severe illness and death.

"It's important to remember that if you just look at the percent efficacy, it looks like the J&J vaccine was not as good, but these three vaccines that we have were tested in different populations, with different end points, and probably most importantly the J&J vaccine was tested when the variants were out there," Dr. Troisi said. "It's really comparing apples to oranges. All three of them are good vaccines. Get whatever one you can."

UTHealth has also been named a COVID-19 vaccine hub in Harris County by the Texas State Department of Health Services. You can visit the website to register online.

Earlier this week, Memorial Hermann announced the launch of a digital COVID-19 vaccination request form, which you can also access on Memorial Hermann hospital's website.

If you would like to register to get on a vaccine waitlist through the local health departments, visit Houston Health Department's website or call 832-393-4220, and Harris County Public Health Department's website or call 832-927-8787

For more resources and information, visit the Harris County Public Health website.

SEE RELATED: Some Texans are hesitant to get vaccinated for COVID-19, here's how health officials are countering skepticism

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