HOUSTON — As Texas joined several other states on Monday in opening eligibility for coronavirus vaccines to millions of healthy adults, anticipation for the shot could be seen in the long line that snaked outside Booker T. Washington High School in Houston.
“This is a good sign,” said Nelson Garcia, 48, who waited more than two hours with his two young children before he was finally within reach of protection from a disease that could be deadly for people with diabetes like himself. “It looks like everyone wants to get vaccinated. I want my children to see that this is a good thing and that the vaccine may finally help us get back to normal.”
On Monday, Texas became the largest state to expand vaccination eligibility to anyone 16 or older, or about 22 million people. Long lines were replicated across the state and appointments were difficult to snag online. Vaccination spots at HEB.com, the website for the most popular supermarket chain in Texas, were few and far between.
The spike was expected. “Virtually anyone can get a vaccine now,” said Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Democrat who represents the Houston region.
Five other states, including neighboring Oklahoma and Louisiana, as well as Kansas, Ohio and North Dakota, also opened their doors for all adults on Monday. Several reported increased interest in the vaccine, but the numbers did not overwhelm the system of vaccine providers.
Also on Monday, officials in New York State, once the center of the pandemic that has killed about 31,000 people in New York City alone, announced that beginning on Tuesday, all adults 30 and older would be eligible for the vaccine. At least 37 other states have vowed to offer shots to every adult who wants one by mid-April.
Six states — Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Minnesota, New Hampshire and South Carolina — plan to expand eligibility this week, officials in those states said.
On Monday, many in Texas celebrated the milestone, which came with the state struggling to stay ahead of the pandemic; there have been an average of 3,774 new cases per day over the past week, according to a New York Times database.
“Covid is still here. Covid is not going anywhere,” Dr. Joseph Varon, the chief of critical care at United Memorial Medical Center in Houston, said as he visited the high school site. “Everybody has to get a vaccine. There is no excuse not to be vaccinated.”
Imelda Garcia, a top official with the Texas Department of State Health Services, called Monday “a truly big day for us here in Texas.” About one in six Texans have fully received the vaccinations needed to fend off a serious coronavirus infection, Ms. Garcia said. Still, the number of Texans who have received at least one dose — about 25 percent — is below the 29 percent nationwide.
Ms. Garcia said the state planned to administer vaccines “as fast as we possibly can,” and she expected to see long lines at vaccination sites for days to come. The state is expected to receive more than one million first doses this week, she said.
Health officials found themselves in a race to vaccinate as many Texans as possible as more contagious variants of the virus continue to spread. At least 500 cases of these variants have been identified, state officials said.
“We need to keep people vaccinated very, very quickly,” Ms. Garcia said. “So that the variants don’t get out of hand.”
While there were no reports of websites crashing or people being turned away on Monday, there were obvious signs that demand for the vaccines was high. The lines were longer than those days earlier at larger sites like NRG Park in Houston. Vehicles snaked around the cavernous parking lot as people anticipated their turn for a drive-by vaccine.
While younger people were among the crowds at vaccination sites, state officials warned that vulnerable populations, such as older people and those who have pre-existing health conditions, remain a priority. This was evident at Booker T. Washington High School, in a historically Black neighborhood of Houston.
Ms. Jackson Lee was surveying the crowd when she spotted a man holding on to a cane and struggling to stay on his feet at the back of the line. She placed an arm around him and gently helped him reach the front.
People in line cheered and applauded as the man, John Custer, 58, walked past them. “I would had waited, I don’t know how long,” he said.
Others like Eddie Taylor, 58, and his wife, Helen Taylor, 60, said they appreciated that many vaccination sites like the high school did not require signing up beforehand. The Taylors got to the end of the line at 8 a.m. hoping to earn a spot before the site shut for the day at 4 p.m.
“You just show up and hope you make it before they close or run out,” said Mr. Taylor, the lead pastor of True Faith and Praise Missionary Baptist Church.
In the Rio Grande Valley, where a combination of poverty, lack of access to health care and a close-knit culture accelerated the spread of the virus over the summer, vaccination sites were a little bit quieter. A majority of residents in Hidalgo County, home to McAllen, had gotten a vaccine by late March, officials said. More than half of its residents qualified because they tend to suffer from chronic pre-existing ailments such as diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure, said Dr. Ivan Melendez, the county health authority.
Nearly 300,000 people in the region had received their first dose of the vaccine as of Monday, and about 22,000 people were expected to do so in the coming weeks. “I am encouraged,” Dr. Melendez said. “Do we have a long way to go? Absolutely. But we have come a long way.”
Calls for Monday’s appointments in Louisiana began three weeks ago, after Gov. John Bel Edwards announced the state’s expansion of eligibility beyond those with underlying health conditions. But Ruston Henry, a pharmacist in New Orleans, noted that his customer base had grown only slightly younger. “We’re seeing old to middle-aged people,” he said. “We’re not seeing many people who are ages 16 to 20.”
As of Thursday, about 15 percent of Louisianans, or about nearly 721,000, had been fully vaccinated, while more than 1.1 million have received at least one dose, officials said.
In Ohio, the demand for vaccines has been palpable, with appointments filling up quickly and some people putting their names on more than one waiting list. In Franklin County, appointments for the entire week were filled within two hours of being made available. Tan Thai, who works at the Old Village Pharmacy in Columbus, said appointments for her most recent batch of vaccines were snapped up in 10 minutes.
“People are so desperate right now,” Ms. Thai said. “They are looking everywhere.”
Dr. Varon, who has witnessed firsthand the devastation brought by the pandemic in the Houston area, said widespread vaccination efforts did not arrive soon enough. More than 48,000 people have died from Covid-19 in Texas, and he fears a surge after spring break and Easter.
“We are expecting a fourth wave,” he said. “It’s going to happen. Things are not going to be good over the next few weeks.”
He cautioned people from letting their guard down until a majority of the population has been fully vaccinated and herd immunity is reached, a number that would assure that medical systems are not overwhelmed with patients. “We are not even close,” he said of the vaccination rates.
He especially urged communities of color — some of which have shown apprehension to sign up for a virus vaccine — to listen to their doctors and public officials and go to the nearest site. “I tell you, please, the vaccines are safe,” Dr. Varon said. “Get vaccinated. This is your only chance to survive this pandemic.”
Reporting was contributed by A. Colleen DeGuzman from McAllen, Texas, Marina Trahan Martinez from Dallas, Katy Reckdahl from New Orleans, and Lucia Walinchus from Columbus, Ohio.