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How Harris County, Houston are using ZIP codes to prioritize COVID vaccinations at FEMA mega site

The city and county crunched the numbers to rank the most vulnerable ZIP codes.

HOUSTON — Houston and Harris County are using ZIP codes to help prioritize who gets the COVID-19 vaccine first at the new FEMA community vaccination center at NRG Park.

The site held a “soft launch” Tuesday, where federal troops gave out about 100 shots. The center will fully vaccinate 126,000 people over six weeks.

FEMA is covering all the site’s costs, while providing the staff and equipment. They’ll use their own vaccine supply separate from the weekly allocation for providers.

Houston and Harris County’s job is to bring in the people to the FEMA site for those shots. They’ll each fill about half the slots from their existing waitlists.

The city and county crunched the numbers to rank the most vulnerable ZIP codes. Staff looked at COVID numbers, income, transportation options, and health care access.

RELATED: How to join Harris County's online COVID vaccine waitlist

Most of those ZIP codes are in the north and east sides of town, the same areas with the fewest vaccine providers.

Harris County’s computers will pick people through a weighted, randomized process. That means people living in those vulnerable areas who have signed up for the city or county waitlists have a higher chance of getting the shot.

“We’ve identified the top 25 zip codes,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a Monday press conference previewing the site. “We start with the top 10, and then go to the next 15, and then the rest of the list. Within that, there will be randomized selection with priority also for older residents.”

Houston Health Department will give people 65 and older living in a high-risk ZIP code top priority from its waitlist, with names chosen randomly.

Once the names in that top tier are exhausted, staff will move to the next tier: anyone 65 and older, and so on.

The third tier includes people 60-64 with underlying medical conditions living in high-risk ZIP codes, with people 60 to 64 with underlying medical conditions in the fourth and final tier.

Everyone getting vaccinated at FEMA’s community vaccination center at NRG Park must have an appointment. County and city officials say everyone picked for opening week should have already been contacted.

The site will start full operations Wednesday. It’s scheduled to give 6,000 first doses of Pfizer vaccine per day, seven days a week, for three weeks. It will then give second doses for the next three weeks.

People can still sign up for Houston and Harris County’s wait lists.