Who's being left behind? 13 Investigates why some were 'forgotten' in vaccine efforts

Friday, May 14, 2021
13 Investigates finds areas behind in vaccine rush
At a time when vaccine demand across our area is dropping and attention waning, 13 Investigates identified neighborhoods across Harris County where it never picked up and finds out

ALDINE, Texas (KTRK) -- Lines wrapped around the Greater Pure Light Church in Aldine during an event last month, but it wasn't just congregants that showed up to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Residents in the zip code next door, which has the lowest vaccination rate across Harris County, also showed up to get the shot.

"We ended up having to turn people away as a matter of fact, because they didn't have enough vaccinations," said the church's Rev. Darryl Broussard. "The need is here. The need is definitely here."

Despite vaccine demand in some parts of Texas dropping, 13 Investigates identified neighborhoods where fewer people have been vaccinated over the last two months - communities like Aldine that need to catch up to the county's vaccination rate.

"The community was kind of forgotten, was not a priority," said Dr. Andrea Caracostis, CEO of the HOPE Clinic, which has a location in Aldine. "It's not that people are lazy and don't want to come to the clinic or that they don't care. It's that they have barriers to come here."

Our investigation found vaccines started out slow in Aldine with just 4% of residents 16 years and older who were vaccinated in the 77060 zip code at the start of March, according to our analysis of state and U.S. Census data.

The zip code continues to have the lowest vaccination rate in the county with just 26% more eligible residents vaccinated as of Monday. The vaccination rate is also half of the county's average of 52% of residents who received the first vaccine.

"I was not surprised," Caracostis said in response to the low vaccination numbers. "We requested vaccines in December and we just got vaccines about last month, so it's been a while. I am not sure what took so long. All our other clinics got the vaccine, but this area did not."

In addition to Aldine, our investigation found other communities across Harris County where only one out of every three eligible residents have received the first vaccine.

Only 33% of residents have been vaccinated in the New Caney zip code of 77357. There's also only been 33% of eligible residents vaccinated in the 77090 zip code near Cypress Station and only 33% vaccinated in the 77013 zip code in Northeast Houston, near Wallisville Road.

The 77081 zip code in the Gulfton area also has one of the lowest vaccination rates with only 35% of eligible residents who have received the first vaccine.

INTERACTIVE: Want to know how many of your neighbors are vaccinated? Search your zip code in the map below. Darker colors mean fewer residents received a vaccine over the last two months. On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

Widespread vaccination is needed to reach herd immunity, where enough people are vaccinated that it helps protect those who aren't by reducing the spread of the virus.

Experts, including the state, say herd immunity is typically reached when 75% to 80% of the population is vaccinated, but the state on Thursday said, "the actual number or the final number is still in progress."

Across Texas, there's only one county that has fully vaccinated at least 75% of the population, 16 years and older. It's Presidio County, located along the southwestern border of U.S. and Mexico.

In Harris County, 39% of the population 16 years and older are fully vaccinated, according to state data. In Fort Bend County, 51% are fully vaccinated and 32% are fully vaccinated in Montgomery County.

INTERACTIVE: How close to reaching herd immunity is your county? Search the map below to see how many residents are vaccinated. Darker colors mean more people were vaccinated.

On a mobile device? Click here.

Imelda Garcia, an associate commissioner for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said the state is looking at the burden COVID-19 is placing on hospitals and the number of fatalities as an indicator of progress.

"While there's no specific number that I can tell you that once we hit this, it's done, looking at those other indicators collectively is going to be really important for us moving forward," Garcia said during a press call on Thursday.

'Biggest barrier is transportation'

We first reported concerns that Aldine residents had limited access to the internet, health care, transportation and vaccine providers in February, but it hasn't gotten much better since then.

"Now you have the people who want immunization, but don't have the facility or the ability to go and get it," Caracostis said. "They don't quite have the technology. They don't have the time. They want the vaccine, but they need more motivation."

READ ALSO: Houston-area residents 'hurting' in low income, minority areas without vaccines

She said not everyone has a car and even if they can get a ride, they might not be able to find someone willing to drive and then wait for them while they get the vaccine.

"They're afraid of language. They're afraid of giving their ID to a strange person, admitting they may not be documented here and just simply the fact that they need to ask the neighbor again for another ride when they've asked them 10 times," Caracostis said.

George Hernandez said he wasn't first in line to get the vaccine because he just didn't have time. He decided to call a Harris Health System clinic in Aldine to set up an appointment on a slow day and was able to get an appointment within hours.

"The company that I work for has been really busy even with the virus and everything and there's just two people where I work, so it's a lot for one person to handle," Hernandez said. "We got to catch a slow day or do it on the weekends and working people usually work on the weekend so you got to find time during work hours to get it done."

Jennifer Small, senior vice president of Ambulatory Care Services, oversees Harris Health System's eight neighborhood clinics, which serve as a safety net for the county's low-income patients.

She said not everyone has access to larger vaccination sites so it was important that they offer vaccinations in areas that are more accessible to lower-income or low-access communities.

"The biggest barrier is transportation, making sure there's something that's reliable, that's close to them," Small said. "Harris County is a large county and certain locations have been structured for mass vaccinations, but I think what's helped us is that (our clinics are) located in the heart of the community. Our patients can take the bus. Many of our patients walk to their clinics."

Our investigation also found the zip codes with the worst vaccination rates also have a higher number of minorities compared to zip codes with more people vaccinated. In Aldine, 95% of residents are minorities.

INTERACTIVE: Want to know how your neighborhood compares to others across the state? On mobile device? Click here for a full screen experience.

Statewide, Garcia said the state is making some progress in overcoming racial disparities in vaccinations, but still has some work.

"We do know that for the Black population, we are still a couple of percentage points behind what they are as a proportion of the whole population and so we know we still have some really targeted efforts that we're working to do," she said. "We will be pushing out some dollars specifically targeting for community-based organizations, faith-based groups to do that grassroots organizing and engagement of communities of color to help tie them into the vaccination efforts because we know that when it's a trusted voice they are more likely to go ahead and take that step to actually being vaccinated."

Aldine 'an afterthought'

Small said continued education on the safety of the vaccine could also help the community reach herd immunity.

"What's helped many of our patients, too, is knowing that their friends and neighbors have received it and they've done well," Small said. "Everyone knows that there may be some slight side effects initially, but compared to what it means if you do have coronavirus, that's really been a huge concern of our patients as well."

Caracostis said although there was a rush to get people vaccinated early on, the Aldine community, and other areas where transportation access is low, were left behind.

"I am not exactly sure why this has been an afterthought," she said. "This part of Aldine in particular is kind of off the beaten track. It's not on the thoroughfare, it's not super visible yet it's a very large community."

When they finally received vaccines, the HOPE Clinic said it was able to conduct more outreach and get to know the members of the nearby community to meet their needs.

The HOPE Clinic has a mobile van that will go out to businesses, apartment complexes and churches to vaccinate people at locations that are convenient and accessible to them.

Caracostis said bringing the mobile van into communities will allow them to immunize about 100 people within just a few hours.

"You can't always expect people to come and get it," she said. "We want to reach moms that have kids that can't get in a car and come here because they need childcare. We want to meet grandmas that need transportation and they can't get here."

The clinic also has two upcoming events for residents to get vaccinated:

  • 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at the Bolivian Consulate, 2401 Fountain View Drive, Suite 110 Houston, Texas 77057
  • 8 a.m. to 11 a.m. Friday at YMCA International, 6300 Westpark Drive, Suite 600 Houston, Texas 77057

Harris Health System initially offered vaccines only to patients, but now says friends and family members of patients can schedule a vaccine online.

Texas Children's Hospital is also working with Aldine ISD to provide the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday and Saturday at the M.O. Campbell Center, 1865 Aldine Bender, TX 77032 - on May 14 and 15. Residents can schedule a vaccine at the center or at Texas Children's facilities online.

Uber and Lyft will also provide free rides to and from vaccination sites until July 4 as part of a new partnership with the White House, a White House official told CNN.

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