Austin-area health leaders eager for larger batch of coronavirus vaccine doses

Heather Osbourne

Austin and Travis County’s top health officials say they are prepared to distribute as many coronavirus vaccine doses as possible in the coming days after Gov. Greg Abbott this week said the largest vaccine shipment to date was on its way to Texas. 

Dr. Jason Pickett, Austin-Travis County deputy medical director, and Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard on Friday said they are eager to see how many coronavirus vaccine doses Austin Public Health and other local health care providers will receive next week.

Abbott on Thursday announced that Texas is set to receive 1.5 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine, which will include second doses and vaccines that were delayed because of last week’s winter storms.

“We are very excited to hear that the state of Texas will receive more vaccines,” Hayden-Howard said.

Austin Public Health for months has received the majority of vaccines from the state compared to other 350 Austin metro area distributors, about 12,000 doses each week, so Hayden-Howard said the more doses that come, the quicker herd immunity can occur locally and statewide.

Herd immunity, which is when enough people become immune to a disease to make its spread unlikely, is ideally achieved through vaccination.

While Abbott on Thursday said Texas could see the end of a statewide mask mandate “pretty soon” as vaccination efforts ramp up across the nation, Pickett on Friday emphasized that Travis County residents should not expect to be able to take off their masks in public just yet.

“We are nowhere near herd immunity right now,” Pickett said. “It’s not time to take off our masks. If you look at the diseases we have experience with in the past, we never reached herd immunity through natural infection for smallpox, measles, polio. All of these required widespread vaccination efforts to really halt those diseases and protect the population at large. COVID-19 is no different.” 

Pickett and Hayden-Howard said while hundreds of thousands of Austin and Travis County residents are pre-registered and looking forward to booking a vaccination appointment, the region still does not have enough doses to go around. 

Hayden-Howard said Austin Public Health on Thursday had 5,700 vaccination appointments available on its website, but 10,000 eligible residents signed into the site to book one of those slots.

Austin Public Health this week updated its vaccine sign-up system to show residents their number in line for a dose. The website also shows the estimated wait time for their turn for a vaccine appointment. 

However, some residents this week were concerned when they signed into the Austin Public Health website and didn’t see the changes. 

Hayden-Howard on Friday clarified that the countdown will only be active when the slate of appointments is released on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which this week occurred late in the evening. If residents continue to not see those changes, Hayden-Howard said they should report that and any other website issues to Austin Public Health. 

If residents sign into the Austin Public Health portal on Tuesdays and Thursdays when appointments are posted and keep the countdown screen open, they will automatically be directed to another page to select an appointment time when it is their turn.

If residents are not already signed into the portal, they will receive multiple notifications alerting them that they have 10 minutes to sign up for an appointment. If they don’t sign up for an appointment after 10 minutes, they are sent to the back of the virtual line.

“It’s important for folks to know that we typically will only put an appointment slot when we have a vaccine to go with it,” Hayden-Howard said. “We continue to see there is more demand than we have supply, so we’re just asking folks to continue to be patient with us. We will continue to make updates.”

Austin Public Health staff for more than a week have been unable to update the Austin-Travis County vaccine distribution dashboard, which shows how many residents have received first and second doses through the agency so far. The record freeze earlier this month led to power outages at their data facility.

However, the Texas Department of State Health Services dashboard shows all Travis County health care providers as of Thursday vaccinated 124,142 residents with first doses. As many as 62,426 people have been fully vaccinated, the dashboard says. 

Texas Department of State Health Services officials say about 1.32 million Travis County residents 16 or older with chronic health conditions can receive vaccine doses once widely available. 


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About the Author: Heather Osbourne

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