As of Thursday, 5 percent of Bexar County residents have received at least the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, a percentage that matches the statewide average. But even as people have jammed phone lines seeking vaccine appointments, new survey data by the Episcopal Health Foundation shows over 60 percent of the state’s population feels hesitant about getting vaccinated.
Health officials estimate between 80 percent and 95 percent of the population will need to be inoculated against the coronavirus to achieve herd immunity and allow people to resume most regular activities. But Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of the child-focused nonprofit Children at Risk, said Friday the biggest hurdle Texas faces is misinformation about the safety of the vaccine within populations most heavily affected by the virus. Among these populations are communities of color and those who do not have health insurance, he added.
“If we don’t get them vaccinated, and we don’t get these other groups vaccinated, it’s very difficult for us to really conquer COVID-19,” Sanborn said during a press conference. “Texas is the state with the largest percentage of our adults that do not have health insurance … and it’s that very group of adults that we become worried about.”
Of the state’s 29 million people, 21 million are eligible for the vaccine, Sanborn said. Texas has received around 2 million vaccines from the federal government and has used about half of those, he added.
In order to beat COVID-19 within Texas, Sanborn said several things need to happen. First, the state needs to “get its act together” and make sure the 37 percent of Texans who the survey found want to get vaccinated can do so quickly and efficiently, he said.
Second, nonprofits and news outlets need to come together to help inform hesitant populations about the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, Sanborn said. Third, messages specifically targeted to communities hesitant to get vaccinated are needed, he said.
“We’ve seen miracles in regards to the development of this vaccine,” Sanborn said. “Let’s use [the vaccine] so that we can get back to work, and get back to this vibrant economy that we have in Texas.”
Allison Winnike, president and CEO of The Immunization Partnership, a nonprofit focused on eradicating preventable diseases, said many Texans have lost trust in public health officials and politicians during the last year because of mixed messages about the pandemic from all levels of government.
“It’s really confused the public and damaged credibility, and has really allowed some fear and misinformation to spread,” Winnike said. “But it’s important that folks understand that the COVID-19 vaccines are the best tool we have to end this pandemic and return to life.”
Both the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines have been shown to have a 95 percent effectiveness rate after the administration of both doses, and a 100 percent effectiveness rate against contracting a severe case of COVID-19, Winnike said.
In order to combat distrust and misinformation, San Antonio foundations, organizations, nonprofits, and news organizations need to craft tailored messages to local residents who may have questions about the vaccine, ensuring residents of Bexar County get accurate information, she said.
“I would also really implore the Texas Legislature to pass legislation during this session to build a more functional state immunization registry, so we can track what’s going on with the COVID-19 vaccines,” Winnike said.
This distrust of the government runs even deeper in communities with less access to health care, including those largely made up of people of color, said David McClendon, principal of data science consulting firm January Advisors. This is especially clear in the numbers, McClendon said.
“You can see … El Paso and Hidalgo [residents] are slightly more hesitant [to get vaccinated],” McClendon said, pointing out that only 35 percent of residents in these two predominantly Hispanic counties said they want the vaccination. “This data underscores that we need to continue to use data to track the scope of the challenges we face to know which groups are hesitant.”
This knowledge can help to inform health officials, news outlets, and government leaders about who they need to be contacting, McClendon said.
“We can also use data like we did during Census 2020 to identify trusted community voices in those neighborhoods where those populations live, and who can deliver the messages,” he said.