This article has been updated.
Despite making up less than 25% of the U.S. population, Texas, Florida, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi account for half of all new COVID-19 cases in the last week. As a part of President Joe Biden’s efforts to stop the spread in the South, White House Vaccinations Coordinator Dr. Bechara Choucair is making the rounds through these areas to boost local vaccination efforts.
Choucair stopped in San Antonio Friday where he met with Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff for a round table discussion and a brief press conference. The White House official said he is impressed with the outreach efforts local leaders have enacted on the ground level.
“We are at a point in the vaccination efforts that it’s all about the ground team,” Choucair said. “It’s all about going community by community, block by block, census tract by census tract, and engaging with people, having conversations with people. And I’m truly so proud of the work that San Antonio has done.”
As cases continue to rise due to the highly transmissible delta variant, accelerated outreach by San Antonio organizations and officials include incentives such as a $100 gift card coming soon for those getting the jab. Bexar County commissioners will also discuss a medical insurance premium rebate offer of up to $1,000 for vaccinated county employees on Tuesday, according to a county press statement.
Nirenberg said he and Wolff are “just getting started” in ramping up local vaccination campaigns. The city and county have partnered to launch a comprehensive outreach program this month that will include messaging on 33 billboards across San Antonio, as well as social media ads, Wolff said.
These new efforts are in addition to existing ones like the “What Will It Take” mural campaign and “Paletas in the Park” informational program. Prior to the press conference Friday, Choucair said he got a chance to see these existing initiatives and discuss upcoming endeavors with local leaders.
“We have a lot to celebrate as a country but at the same time we still have millions and millions of people who still are unvaccinated,” Choucair said. “When you take the number of people who are unvaccinated and you take a variant that’s much more contagious than the previous variants … you have a recipe for a spike and that’s unfortunately what we’re seeing across the country.”
This is especially true for the South, Choucair added. He said it’s understandable that a lot of people still have questions about the vaccine and urged Texans to talk to their health care providers about their concerns.
“The facts are there, the science is there, the data is there,” Choucair said. “The facts remain clear that if you’re unvaccinated you continue to be at risk of catching the virus, you continue to be at risk of hospitalization and death.”
More than 99% of all recent local deaths are unvaccinated individuals, Wolff said. He added that the only silver lining in seeing local case numbers go up is that vaccination rates are also going up. That’s a trend that is happening across the country, Choucair noted.
Just in the past week, about 31,000 San Antonians received the jab, about half of which were receiving their second dose, according to the city’s dashboard. That’s about double the number of people who received it last week. As of Friday, 78.2% of the county’s eligible population have received at least one dose, and about 69.3% are fully vaccinated.
Vaccines are available at no cost and on a walk-up basis at the Alamodome Wednesday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Pharmacies such as H-E-B, CVS, and Walgreens also offer the vaccine, along with pop-up clinics around San Antonio.
As children head back to school, it’s also important everyone masks up indoors, Nirenberg said. He asked parents to encourage their children to wear masks at school, expressing frustration with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring school districts from imposing mask mandates which he called “callous and heartless.”
Although Choucair dodged questions about his thoughts on the governor’s mandate, he said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made their recommendations to wear masks indoors clear.