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Perfect storm of COVID-19 fatigue and vaccine myths spike infections for Houston Hispanics

Leaders warn unsafe behavior and vaccine misinformation are contributing to higher infection rates in Houston and Harris County among underserved communities. In part one of ABC13's two-night town hall, we explore the hesitation in getting the vaccine and how to change that.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- While CDC data reveals the disproportionate effects of COVID-19 on our Black and Hispanic communities, leaders warn unsafe behavior and vaccine misinformation are contributing to higher infection rates in Houston and Harris County.

Eyewitness News anchor Mayra Moreno hosted the first of a two-night town hall event Wednesday, focusing on the hesitation of our most underserved communities toward getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

The CDC says Black and Latino Americans are nearly three times more likely to die from COVID-19 complications than whites.

"Eighty percent of the patients that I have in my COVID unit are Hispanic or of Latino origin," said Dr. Joseph Varon, chief medical officer at United Memorial Medical Center. "Everybody went to see their abuelas (grandma) for Christmas. Every single one of them."Varon said he is deeply troubled by recent videos from large gatherings at bars and clubs, and continued resistance to wearing masks. But even more concerning, he said, is people not getting early medical attention or planning to get the vaccine.

"When they come to me with two and a half weeks of symptoms, of being short of breath, of having fevers, I say, 'why didn't you come early?'" Varon said. "There are three usual responses: If I go to the hospital, I am going to get COVID. If I go to the hospital, I'm going to die. Pretty soon, number three, why am I going to go to the hospital, it's going to cost me a lot of money."

Varon said when it comes to the vaccine and COVID-19 testing, many people aren't aware the federal government is footing the bill.

"We come from a culture where, typically, we don't like to ask for help," said Dr. Laura Murillo, president of the Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. "I cannot begin to tell you how many conversations I have had personally trying to convince people to pay attention to the facts, the science."

Murillo said as officials work to make vaccinations more accessible, the Hispanic community needs to police their behaviors to curb hospitalizations, especially for our elderly and high-risk population.

"We come from homes where it is a multi-generational household. Even if the grandmother is staying home, you've got people coming in and out of that home," Murillo said. "Yes, we want to get our community back up and going, small businesses, of course, but you're going to pay with your life or the life of a loved one if we don't take this seriously."

State Rep. Armando Walle, who serves as Harris County's COVID-19 recovery czar, acknowledged the frustration of residents to the slow pace of vaccine distribution, but promised "help is on the way."

After weeks of complaints and confusion about getting vaccine appointments, the city of Houston opened its first drive-thru vaccination site Monday at Del Mar Stadium. On Tuesday, Harris County opened registration for its vaccine waitlist.

"We apologize for the frustration," Walle said. "I have a 90-year-old grandfather. I have a mom that has pre-existing conditions, so this is personal for all of us."

Walle said as the county awaits the full force of President Joe Biden's distribution plan to kick in, everyone has a role to play in bringing down the infection rate.

"I know we have COVID fatigue," Walle said. "We have control. We have agency. We can wear a mask, right? We can limit the carne asadas, we can wash our hands."

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and other panelists encouraged leaders from Austin to Houston to consider creative ways to reach our Hispanic neighborhoods, from going door-to-door to register those who can't get online for vaccinations, to expanding drive-thru inoculation sites.

"Maybe going in a van with my little ice box, and giving the vaccines to people in their home," Varon said. "If we don't reach a large number of people to get vaccinated, then we're going to get more issues medically, we're going to have more unusual strains of the virus, and we're going to have people dying in spite of the vaccine."

Eyewitness News anchor Chauncy Glover will host night two of Action 13 "COVID-19 Vaccine & Our Communities of Color" on Thursday at 7 p.m. The town hall is being co-produced with Xi Kappa Lambda Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., of Missouri City.

As broadcasted by ABC 13