Judge Lina Hidalgo to cancel nearly $11M controversial vaccine outreach contract

The decision comes after some backlash

HOUSTON – Harris County had a problem and a plan. The problem? Guaranteed vaccine hesitancy. The plan? To hire a company to do “targeted vaccine community outreach.”

The county asked for bids on the county’s website back in March, in addition to emailing a dozen or so vendors and others to “get the word out.”

“The selected vendor will create and oversee a community outreach strategy,” the county email said, in part.

Potential vendors had nine days to submit proposals, and four did.

UT Public Health, Elevates Strategies, the National Association of Latino Elected, Appointed Officials Educational Fund, and “Kickin Ass Takin Names, LLC DBA Texas Tool Belt” proposals were received by March 8, 2021, according to county documents.

Five months later, the county purchasing department recommended Elevates Strategies and the commissioner’s court voted 4-1 to hire the company.

This week, on the day Elevates Strategies started its work on a one-year project to reach millions of people by phone, text, mail, digital ads and knocking on doors, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she canceled the nearly $11 million contract because the issue became politicized.

A spokesperson for Hidalgo said she did not know Elevates Strategies founder Felicity Pereyra, though they had spoken on the phone once or twice before.

The spokesperson also said the bidding process and voting on the contract were “by the books.”

“It’s my understanding that in order to cancel a contract, we’re going to have to discuss it and cancel in court,” said Commissioner Tom Ramsey, who voted in favor of hiring Elevates, but is now having second thoughts.

“We did not know the amount of the contract,” said Ramsey. “Originally, we did not know who the subs were. We did not know that UT Health had been disqualified.”

The county says the purchasing department provided commissioners with the Elevates Strategies proposal cost in June, and that commissioners had plenty of opportunities to ask questions.

County documents show that early in the process, the Harris County purchasing department narrowed the bids down to Elevates and UT.

UT’s proposal, for just over $7 million, which involved medical students doing community outreach, scored higher in the original county bid assessment -- 244 points to Elevates’ 204. Then came the interview process.

A county spokesperson said UT “didn’t show up” for its original interview and was not meeting its goals on another county COVID-19 project it was working on at the time.

The county purchasing department wrote in the UT Public Health assessment that “the community outreach work they have done for other projects such as Harris SAVES has not been shown to be successful.”

When asked if UT Health School of Public Health show up for its initial interview for the contract in question, a spokesperson said the following:

“Yes. UTHealth Houston submitted an RFP response for the Targeted Community Vaccine Outreach program for Harris County on March 5, 2021, in advance of the March 8, 2021 submission deadline. Harris County scheduled a call with UTHealth for April 28, 2021 to allow UTHealth to make a brief presentation and for the county to ask clarifying questions. In the call, the county participants announced they had no questions, and the call lasted only a few minutes.”

The spokesperson continued by saying the following:

“UTHealth Public Health and Harris County entered into an agreement for the COVID-19 Community Spread Survey Program on Nov. 10, 2020. Two weeks after vaccine eligibility opened up to 18-plus in Texas (March 29, 2020), the two parties mutually agreed to close out the community spread survey program on April 30, 2021. During bi-weekly meetings, the county never expressed that they were unhappy with UTHealth’s performance on the community spread survey program. In fact, we were invited by the County Judge’s office to submit a proposal for the Targeted Community Vaccine Outreach program for Harris County.”

When asked if UTHealth School of Public Health wanted to clarify or clear something up, the spokesperson said:

“UTHealth School of Public proudly stands by its proposal for the Targeted Community Vaccine Outreach for Harris County. The school was excited to respond to Harris County’s RFP request for the proposal and believes that it would have done an excellent job on the project if it had been selected.”