Three out of five Texans say they are likely to get vaccinated. That is the most encouraging takeaway from a Friday press conference where nonprofit and public health officials presented a new statewide survey on current attitudes about COVID-19 vaccines.

An equal percentage of the public is wary of vaccines designed and brought to market in record time, but fear of the deadly coronavirus apparently outweighs those misgivings. Public health officials believe a sustained public education campaign promoting vaccines is essential in the coming months to stop the spread of the coronavirus, reboot the economy, and allow people to resume normal lives.

Texas would be unlikely to achieve herd immunity with only 60% of the population vaccinated, public health officials said Friday. Herd immunity likely would occur when 70% or more of the population is vaccinated and is more certain when 90% or more of the population is vaccinated, they said.

The survey was conducted by the Houston-based Episcopal Health Foundation, which was founded in 2013 by the Episcopal Diocese of Texas with a focus on grantmaking to community health care clinics throughout its 57-county area to improve public health, particularly among Texans living in poverty.

The statewide survey contains some bad news, too. Attitudes toward the vaccines, which should be based on their scientific and medicinal merits, reflect the country’s partisan political divide. The survey reports that 30% of Republican respondents said they are very unlikely to get the vaccine, compared to only 8% of Democrats.

Even so, the survey finds that a public education campaign on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines is most needed in areas of high poverty and among minority populations, where voters tend to vote Democrat.

There are 29 million Texans, and so far, only 2 million vaccine doses have reached the state, allowing public health officials to vaccinate 5% of the population, with the focus so far on frontline workers, seniors, and individuals with underlying medical conditions. Bexar County is slightly ahead of the state rate, with 6% of the population having received at least one vaccine dose.

Demand clearly vastly exceeds supply, as anyone trying to obtain a vaccination appointment knows. My wife, Monika, and I have spent hours online and with smartphones in hand over the past week, repeatedly calling City, County, and WellMed phone lines. She finally secured a mid-February appointment for her 88-year-old mother, who lives independently with us. I have yet to break through. Friday evening I registered six different times in the course of 41 calls to the University Health Systems line for an appointment in February. Each of the six times I completed the registration process only to see the system crash and eventually inform me all slots had been filled.

An article posted Friday evening on the San Antonio Report underscored the high demand and how quickly scarce reservations disappear. The article announcing the decision by Bexar County officials and University Health System officials to offer advance reservations to 24,000 people for vaccine appointments this week and in February had to be updated shortly after publication with the news that all appointment slots had been filled.

“This is a daunting task,” said Bob Sanborn, president and CEO of Children at Risk, who presented the main survey findings at the Friday press conference. The statewide nonprofit recently opened an office in San Antonio, giving it a presence now in all major Texas cities.

“About 5% of the state’s population has received at least one round of vaccination. That means 95% of the population has not been vaccinated…The people we are most worried about are the people in the state without health insurance…if we don’t get them vaccinated, it will be very difficult to conquer COVID-19.”

Using public outreach to coax more of the undecided into getting the vaccine will be key for officials in the coming months.

“One of the main issues is that many Texans have lost trust in public health officials and our politicians….it’s really allowed fear to spread,” said Allison Winnike, president and CEO of the Houston area’s The Immunization Partnership. “COVID vaccines are the best tool we have…they will save your life.”

Reporter Lindsey Carnett’s Friday article looks at that survey data. I was drawn to other data presented by Dr. Robert Ferrer, a UT Health San Antonio physician and faculty member who serves as vice chair of research for the Family Medicine Residency in the Department of Family and Community Medicine.

“My perspective boils down to a few points: The virus is widespread, it’s very contagious, it’s airborne, and the measures recommended to protect people – masks and social distancing – they work, but they won’t get us all the way to controlling the virus, ” Ferrer said. “For that we need vaccines.

“It’s also clear the virus is hitting economically distressed communities (in San Antonio) harder,” Ferrer added, presenting data that shows the worst-hit areas are found in Districts 3, 4, and 5 in the inner city, while most zip codes in the north, northwest, and northeast parts of the city have far lower mortality rates. “The virus is scary. It gets hold of you, it’s hard to shake, and recovery is slow.”

COVID-19 mortality by zip code. Credit: Courtesy / UT Health – Dr. Robert Ferrer

For people worried about potential side effects, Ferrer noted that only about 1 in every 100,000 people vaccinated report an allergic reaction, which can be successfully treated. The vaccines protect against the virus in 95% of the vaccinated population.

“The safety profile is pretty good,” Ferrer said. “The most important thing to say is that the vaccine is our path out of the pandemic.”

Asked to cite his greatest fear, Ferrer said, “That we don’t overcome the fear and misinformation.”

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.