Mass vaccination site to open at NRG Park.
Mayor: Priority at site operated by FEMA will be given to high-risk areas
With help from the federal government, Houston will again work to vaccinate thousands from one location. This time, it’s NRG Park.
On Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will fund and help operate a mass vaccination site at NRG Park for at least eight weeks. Houston was chosen along with New York City, Dallas-Fort Worth and Los Angeles as part of a pilot mass vaccination site strategy by FEMA.
Houston Health Department and Harris County Public Health are FEMA’s local partners in the effort to inoculate 126,000 people in that period. Unlike the Minute Maid Park mega vaccination site, this FEMA site will place more focus on equitable access for individuals from high-risk areas and communities of color, Mayor Sylvester Turner said.
“This is an enormous win for our community,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said. “(These) 126,000 people are a lot of people. Harris County normally receives 9,000 doses a week. We must keep fighting for more supplies.”
Prioritization will go to residents 65 years of age or older from high-risk ZIP codes, which include: 77011, 77012, 77015, 77016, 77020, 77022, 77026, 77028, 77029, 77032, 77033, 77037, 77038, 77039, 77048, 77078, 77086, 77087, 77091, 77093, 77502, 77503, 77504, 77506 and 77587.
Further prioritization will go to any individuals 65 or older; then those ages 60-64 with underlying medical conditions who live in a high-risk ZIP code; and finally any people ages 60-64 with underlying medical conditions. Registration is open to those who qualify under Phases 1A and 1B under the Texas Department of State Health Services.
Six thousand people who qualify will be vaccinated every day, including Saturday and Sunday, for three weeks. On the fourth week, health care workers will
transition to second-dose appointments.
Both Harris County and the city will make appointments from current vaccination waiting lists, Turner said. He encouraged people to continue checking the city’s website for availability or call 832927-8787. Senior citizens are encouraged to call the city’s Area Agency on Aging at 832-393-4301.
No walk-ups will be accepted at the megasite, Hidalgo said. Appointments will go to those registered through the city’s or county’s websites or by phone at 832927-8787.
NRG Park is the ideal location because of its parking lot size and efficiency, Harris County Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen said.
Upon arrival, registrants will line up in their vehicles at one of seven registration tents and show their confirmation email, which will contain a QR code. Then the 500- to 600-vehicle queue starts.
There will be 11 white vaccination tents with four health care workers administering shots in each. Theoretically, 44 people will be vaccinated at a time, said Tony Robinson, FEMA Region 6 administrator.
The process could last between 18 and 40 minutes, Robinson said. Spanish and Vietnamese interpreters will be available at the megasite, and all people are encouraged to register, regardless of immigration status.
When city officials rolled out their mass vaccination site at Minute Maid Park earlier this year, they faced several hiccups. When the site first launched, some residents who scheduled appointments were turned away because the city mistakenly overbooked, prompting the Houston Health Department to issue an apology.
Those who were vaccinated at the megasite described a logistical nightmare with long wait times inside the stadium and lines for parking that stretched into the street and clogged downtown traffic. Turner admitted at the time it was challenging to provide vaccines on such a massive scale.
“It’s a heavy lift. It’s a large operation,” the mayor said in January. “You may have glitches every now and then.”
Turner and city health officials decided to stop operating the Minute Maid site in late January because the city was not receiving enough doses of the COVID-19 vaccine each week.
“At the Minute Maid site, we ended up vaccinating more than 6,400 people in a single day. When it comes to quantity, that’s great; when it comes to equity, it is not as great,” Turner said Monday. “We have learned from that, and now we’re including vulnerable populations, ZIP codes based on positivity rate.
“In addition to the 6,000 people a day, equity is built in and part of the equation.”
Other cities and states have encountered similar hurdles in distributing COVID vaccines. After the state of Massachusetts launched a portal last week to help residents schedule vaccine appointments, the Boston Globe said, residents “encountered a maelstrom of website crashes, system errors and notices telling them there were many available appointments — but they were out of reach.”
The mass vaccination site at NRG Park is part of the Biden administration’s effort to launch 100 federally supported vaccine centers by the end of February, an effort that will require mobilizing “thousands of clinical and nonclinical staff and contractors,” the White House said in its national COVID plan. To fully staff and supply megasites such as the one in Houston, experts say, local, state and federal governments will need to coordinate on a scale that has never been done before.
Omar Matuk-Villazon, a clinical assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Houston College of Medicine, said vaccination sites — including the clinic where he works as a pediatrician — typically get bogged down by administrative procedures.
“The thing that we have struggled with the most is the data entry,” Matuk-Villazon said. “I’m not concerned about actually delivering the shots.”
Most people who have received the vaccine so far likely have health insurance, Matuk-Villazon said, as they may hear about vaccine opportunities through their primary care provider. In 2019, nearly 1 in 5 people in the Houston metro area lacked health coverage, totaling 1.4 million uninsured residents — the highest number in the country. Nationally, 9.2 percent of people were uncovered.
“That means they will have no access to the vaccine unless they are technologically literate,” Matuk-Villazon said.
As a medical student at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico in Mexico City, Matuk-Villazon said, he and other students would help perform mass vaccinations by “literally going door by door.” Houston has a number of medical schools that could perform a similar function here, he said.
“We don’t have to wait for the underserved to sign up for the COVID vaccine,” Matuk-Villazon said. “We just have to go and get them.”