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‘We’re hurting’: Some residents say their neighborhoods aren’t being prioritized for vaccine sites

HOUSTON – As the demand for COVID-19 vaccination sites throughout the Houston area reaches fever pitch, a pastor who serves a community in the city’s northeast region feels some neighborhoods are not being prioritized.

“I think it’s insensitive,” said Pastor Montari Morrison, of New Faith Baptist Church N.E., which is near the Trinity Gardens neighborhood of northeast Houston.

“We’re hurting. We were hurting before the pandemic. We’re hurting during the pandemic and we’re going to be hurting after this pandemic,” Morrison continued.

While the city of Houston and Harris County have pledged to open additional vaccination sites, how quickly that happens depends on vaccine distribution. 

The Houston Health Department plans to focus on underrepresented communities once supply allows it to do so, but Pastor Morrison said there hasn’t been much outreach in the city’s northeast quadrant, beginning with church and neighborhood leaders.

“You want to inform anyone who has influence in the community first. Empower them to get the information to their community -- those who have the trust of the people,” he said.

Morrison joined other ministers from the northside last spring in an effort to push for COVID-19 testing sites. They were successful. He said the community could benefit from access to vaccination sites.

“We have a lot of elderly in this community and to simply post something online is really not sufficient as it relates to communicating how to even access the vaccine.  We need to be more hands on and more direct in how to get this done safely,” he said.

Thus far, larger chain pharmacies and hospital groups have been front-and-center in the state’s vaccination rollout. However, there is concern about communities that don’t have easy access. Access to adequate healthcare was a concern in northeast Houston before the pandemic. Pastor Morrison said the coronavirus only deepened the concern.

“It’s just outright insensitive to not have a place here,” he said, addressing the concern of limited access in the majority elderly and Black community.

“One of the biggest forms of transportation in northeast Houston is by bus. Many don’t have cars. They don’t have their own transportation. If we’re forcing them to travel outside of the community to get a vaccine, we’re putting them so far behind the eight ball,” Morrison said.

There is a lack of pharmacies in northeast Houston, and most of those available are not yet offering a COVID-19 vaccine. The lack of access to pharmacies, with or without the vaccine, places the area in what’s considered a pharmacy desert.

“A pharmacy desert is really an area of the country that doesn’t have enough access for its citizens for pharmacy services,” said Dr. Lamar Pritchard, dean of the college of pharmacy at the University of Houston. “Most of these counties are located in West Texas, but we do have a few counties in the eastern portion of the state.”

Overall, Dr. Pritchard said Harris County falls behind the national average. He said the county has 1.72 pharmacies for every 10,000 residents. The average is 1.83. 

Surrounding suburban counties have better access to pharmacies, Dr. Pritchard said.

“We have pockets of zip codes within Harris County that have fewer pharmacies compared with other zip codes. We need to address especially some of the areas that have fewer pharmacies and be able to deliver those essential services like the COVID-19 vaccination,” Dr. Pritchard said.

Pastor Morrison feels the northeast Houston community hasn’t been a priority. He said as the state, county and city leaders work to increase vaccination locations, they could use resources within the community to assist them in accomplishing the job.

“We have local health professionals here in our area, who actually aspire to be the conduit to vaccinate like this,” he said.