Small community clinics provide crucial link in getting doses to vulnerable communities

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- In the heart of Denver Harbor, located two miles east of downtown Houston, Vecino Health Clinic staff eagerly vaccinated 20 people Monday morning against the COVID-19 virus.

"About 80% of our patients fall below 200% of the federal poverty level," said Daniel Montez, who founded the clinic 20 years ago.

Even a few dozen doses makes a difference in this working class neighborhood, where many patients can't drive to large vaccine sites because they don't have a reliable car.

"We're seeing patients who are extremely excited to get the vaccine," said Dr. Sharon Anderson, who runs the family practice program out of the clinic in conjunction with Methodist Hospital. "We have a lot of demand, people calling and asking when they can get it ... just a lot of relief."

Clinics like Vecino and larger safety net providers like Harris Health are proving crucial in the effort to get the vaccines into underserved communities.

"Many of our patients take transportation or walk to our clinics, so we're specifically located in those areas to ensure our patients are able to receive the vaccines where they may not be able to in some of the larger locations," said Jennifer Small, the senior vice president at Harris Health.

Harris Health currently vaccinates people in nine area clinics, mostly in underserved areas. The data backs up the need for these neighborhood vaccine sites.

Within Harris Health's network of clinics, 50% of its vaccinated patients are Hispanic, 21% are Black, 10% are white, and 6% are Asian.

Compared to Harris County Public Health's countywide data, 38% are white, 26% are Hispanic, 14% are Black and 19% are Asian.

The challenge for neighborhood clinics, though, is that increase in their vaccine quantities may not be as easy as it seems.

"Vaccines given are wonderful," said Anderson. "The logistics are difficult for clinics our size, so we do our best with the allocations we're given and the staff we have."

Anderson points out that large sites are staffed with volunteers or members of the military, and with lots of people to enter data as required by the state.

Most small clinics are not given extra funding to hire staff or even provide space. They must use existing staff, who already have jobs to care for patients and to administer the vaccines.

Also the requirement for patients to wait, socially-distanced, for 15 minutes after a vaccine to be monitored also limits the neighborhood clinic's capacity.

Despite those challenges, it's clear from the data that both large scale and small scale vaccine facilities are needed in order to get as many doses into arms as possible.

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