‘We Don’t Have Enough Vaccine For Our Community’: Austin Public Health Urges Patience During Rollout

KUT Radio, Austin’s NPR Station

Austin Public Health has provided 18,427 vaccines to the Austin and Travis County community as of Thursday, according to APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard.

But one thing is certain, she said during a press conference, APH doesn’t have enough doses for everyone right now.

“We are asking for you to be patient with us,” she said.

Hayden-Howard said APH has received only 1% of the doses needed to vaccinate the community. She said there are 129,438 people in Austin-Travis County alone who are 65 and older, an age group qualified to get vaccinated right now.

And as people rush to sign up for one of these limited doses, APH’s phone lines and other operations related to COVID are overwhelmed, Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette said.

“Austin and Travis County has reached a point in our community where we have reached the perfect storm,” she said. “We are in the midst of a surge in all of our operations related to COVID-19 response.”

Pichette said the city’s facilities for people who need a place to safely isolate to prevent family members from getting sick are close to capacity. The alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center now has 25 patients. APH is also seeing a surge in demands for tests right now, she said.

But cases do seem to be flattening out, Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, said.

“We’ve done a great job in the last couple of weeks in flattening the curve,” he said. “The curve is continuing to flatten. We‘re seeing some decline in our hospitalization numbers and our ICU numbers, so what you are doing is working.”

The community can’t stop here, though, he said. People must keep wearing masks and social distancing.

“We have to continue those protections and stay vigilant so we can drive the numbers down and allow us more time for vaccine to be available and to get it into the arms of our community,” he said.

Watch the press conference below:

Coronavirus in Austin, Texas: Austin leaders answer COVID-19 questions amid vaccine roll-out | KVUE

The state has been divvying up its allocations from the federal government to vaccine providers across Texas. Last week, the Texas Department of State Health Services began allocating thousands to large-scale providers dubbed “vaccine hubs.” APH is one of them. It’s been allotted 24,000 vaccines in the last two weeks. Smaller providers are getting only a few hundred vaccines per week right now.

As a public health entity, APH says its focus is on people who don’t have health insurance or another provider available to them. But that doesn’t mean people with health insurance can’t sign up on APH’s waitlist, Escott clarified Friday. He said his advice to those eligible for the vaccine is to sign up for whatever waitlist they can find to increase their chance of getting a shot.

“As we did with testing, we wanted to remind folks that if they have means of getting vaccine or testing somewhere other than Austin Public Health, that helps to reserve vaccine resources for those who don’t have other options,” he said. “But certainly people can sign up who have insurance, and we will provide the vaccine as best we can to whoever signs up.”

The vaccines authorized for use in the U.S. right now require two doses for full protection. Escott said he expects APH to be able to provide the second dose to those who got their first from APH in a timely fashion.

“Part of the challenge we have … is we don’t have a shipping order saying it’s going to arrive on this date,” he said. “We have trust that the state and federal government is going to supply what they’ve said that they’re going to supply.”

Per state guidance, APH and other vaccine providers are prioritizing people 65 and older and those with underlying medical conditions that put them at higher risk for complications from COVID-19. Escott said the reason behind this is that those groups are the most likely to be hospitalized and the most likely to die from the virus. Gaining immunity within those groups will help eliminate the threat to currently overwhelmed hospital systems.

“I think it’s reasonable that by the March timeframe, perhaps April, as we get through that group who’s at highest risk for hospitalization, that that threat of overwhelming the health care system may be largely resolved,” Escott said.

That won’t mean the community can relax precautions, he clarified. People younger than 65 can still develop complications from COVID and stress hospital systems.

“But that can be managed through the masking and distancing through June in order to buy us additional time to get other folks vaccinated,” he said. “So, again, I expect that around the March-April timeframe we will start to see a much different picture in terms of the threat to our infrastructure and the threat to our health care system.”

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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