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A week after public health officials in Texas’ most populous county started handing out $100 cash cards to locals getting their first COVID-19 shot, the number of daily vaccinations has shot up to six times its previous rate, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Tuesday.
“We had an inkling that something was going right when I started my announcement [about the incentive] at noon, and by the time I was done, 30 minutes later, there was a line of cars waiting to receive the vaccine,” Hidalgo said. “We haven’t seen those lines for months.”
To accommodate and encourage the increased demand, the county will be opening an additional mass vaccination site and expanding its mobile vaccine program, Hidalgo said.
“You have to be creative, and we’re seeing the results and we’re doubling down on it,” Hidalgo said.
Harris County officials began the incentive program last Tuesday in a bid to jumpstart stalled vaccinations in Houston and surrounding areas, and to provide relief to the region’s stressed hospitals during what health officials say is the worst surge of infections the area has seen since the pandemic began last year.
For the three weeks before the program started, Hidalgo said, Harris County Public Health was administering an average of 431 first doses per day. The day the announcement was made, the number jumped to 914. The next day, 1,596 people sought the first doses from public health providers.
On Saturday, four days into the program, some 2,700 people got their first injection, Hidalgo said.
“This is an incredible achievement,” she said.
Demand for vaccines began to slow down in April and May in Texas and across the nation because of vaccine hesitancy and many people’s assumption that the pandemic was over as infections and hospitalizations plummeted, health officials said. At the time, less than a quarter of the Texas population was fully vaccinated.
The rapid emergence of the delta variant in the early summer is now fueling a surge that is sending mostly unvaccinated Texans, who make up around 45% of the state’s population, to hospitals in numbers not seen since January, before the vaccines became widely available.
Experts say that while mask-wearing and social distancing will stem the rush on hospitals in the short term, mass vaccination is the only answer to beating the pandemic in the long term.
“To the extent that people get vaccinated, this surge is going to end faster,” Hidalgo said.
President Joe Biden has encouraged cities and counties to dip into federal stimulus dollars to pay for $100 incentives like the one Harris County offers. In Texas, Austin Public Health is offering H-E-B grocery store gift cards, while San Antonio is weighing its own similar program and Bexar County recently announced health insurance rebates for employees who get the shot.
Also on Tuesday, Harris County opened a new mass vaccination site in Sheldon ISD’s Panther Stadium, about 20 miles northeast of Houston, with the ability to administer 1,500 vaccine doses per day, Hidalgo said.
On Thursday, the county will move its mass vaccination site from Houston’s NRG Stadium to Graves Park, where some 2,500 vaccine doses can be administered per day. And the county will also expand its mobile vaccine program to accommodate additional demand. The goal is to vaccinate up to 7,600 people per day through all three efforts, she said.
Harris County officials have set aside $2.3 million for the county’s vaccine incentive program — enough to put first doses in about 23,000 arms.
The local incentives, combined with the daily drumbeat of grim news about overwhelmed hospitals and climbing infection rates among children and in nursing homes, are being credited for a small upswing in vaccination rates across the state in recent weeks.
As of Sunday, daily vaccines were up by 20,214 doses compared with the 30-day average a month ago. An average 77,047 vaccine doses were reported each day in the last month. Just over 46% of Texans are fully vaccinated.
Texas’ lowest point for vaccinations came in late July, when the 30-day average hit 52,595 doses per day. The highest point was in April, when the 30-day average peaked at 245,399 doses per day.
State health officials also hope that Monday’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will boost demand for the vaccine among those who were hesitant because it had only received authorization for emergency use.
“We’ve heard from people who said they were waiting until full FDA approval to be vaccinated,” said Chris Van Deusen, spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services. “Hopefully, the approval will give people added confidence about what we’ve seen in the real world: that the COVID-19 vaccines are safe, and they work.”
Mandi Cai contributed to this report.
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Correction, Aug. 24, 2021: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect date in the photo caption. The vaccination in the photo happened in January 2021, not January 2020.