Long lines as Austin Public Health launches first COVID-19 vaccine hub

Hojun Choi

Austin Public Health has started its distribution of COVID-19 vaccines through appointments, and hundreds of people waited in line in the cold Tuesday for a shot in East Austin. 

James King, 68, said he made an appointment as he qualifies under the state’s definition for Phase 1B vaccination, which includes people who are 65 or older and those 16 and older who have a chronic medical condition that puts them at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus. 

King, who said he was previously treated for stage 3 cancer, said he is currently a driver for a ride-hailing service. 

More:Abbott defends vaccine rollout as state surpasses 30,000 coronavirus deaths

“With all of the incredible number of people I don’t know whatsoever — and (I) can’t socially distance from inside the compartment of a vehicle — I thought it would be a good idea to get the vaccine,” he said. 

King said he was satisfied with the progress of the line on Tuesday. “All things considered,” he said, “they’re moving in lock.”

Austin Public Health spokesman Bryce Bencivengo told the American-Statesman that the event, which was coordinated with the Austin Fire Department, was not publicized Tuesday. Officials asked that the location of the vaccination hub not be shared publicly because doses are currently only for those with appointments. 

More:Escott: Austin-Travis County may reach ICU capacity Thursday as coronavirus cases rise

“The issue is, we cannot accommodate walk ups. We didn’t want people walking up and thinking that they are going to get served because it’s here,” Bencivengo said. “Because they will be turned away.” 

Appointments so far have been handled by Community Care, Lone Star Circle of Care, and People’s Community Clinic, which reached out to patients to let them know that they were eligible to make an appointment, health officials said.

Because the vaccination process currently requires two separate doses of the vaccine, Austin Public Health will handle scheduling for the second doses. 

Bencivengo said health officials on Monday administered vaccines to about 850 people at the East Austin location, which was chosen because the area has been a hotspot for infections. Tuesday numbers weren’t immediately available.

Kevin McCauley, who is 67 years old, said he set up his appointment through Community Care and arrived about 30 minutes early, but left after seeing the line. 

“I can’t fault them for this. They didn’t have any idea how long it would take to get to each individual a shot. I think I’ll come back first thing tomorrow,” he said as he walked back to his car. 

The vaccination effort comes after state health officials announced the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would ship the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines to 234 providers in 104 Texas counties this week. The providers include 28 hubs focusing on large community vaccination.

Austin Public Health was expected to receive 12,000 first doses from the shipment. 

Local health officials said they will launch a public forum Wednesday so the public could more easily sign up for a coronavirus vaccine in Travis County.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said those who qualify can sign up on the website once it is launched. He said not all residents will be able to get a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine through the most recent shipment of coronavirus vaccines. However, he said, people who sign up through the forum will be contacted when more doses of the vaccine are available.

Austin Public Health said it will first provide vaccines to uninsured and underinsured people who are health care workers or 65 and older.

Vaccination distribution in Texas has gotten off to a rough start with confusion over who has access to vaccines and fears that doses of the vaccines could be sitting on hospital shelves. 

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott defended the state’s vaccination distribution plan. 

When asked about any breakdown in communication between state health officials and vaccine providers, Abbott said there “actually has been an improvement of communication and explanation about what’s exactly going on.”

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