‘Too Many Unknowns’: Austin Public Health Tries To Shed Light On Confusing Vaccine Rollout
As vaccines continue to slowly roll out, Austin Public Health is encouraging people to avoid parties this Super Bowl Sunday to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“Our hope is that you stay home, you don’t have parties with people that don’t live in your home and you continue to do the things we have asked you to do,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said during a press conference, reiterating the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands often.
While COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are flattening out in the Austin area, there are still high numbers coming in each day. More than 500 new cases and 60 new coronavirus hospitalizations are being reported daily. And the more contagious U.K. variant was officially detected in Austin-Travis County this week.
Health officials are also asking the community to be patient as the slow vaccine rollout continues. More than 550,000 people have registered through APH to get a COVID-19 vaccine, and more than 150,000 of those qualify for a vaccine as part of phase 1B. But APH has only been receiving 12,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine each week.
“We have a limited supply, and the vast majority of people who are waiting for a vaccine are going to have to wait for weeks or months to get that,” said Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County.
The vaccine requires two doses to be effective. APH has not yet received an allocation of second doses, nor a notification of when those second doses are coming. Officials said once they do know, they will begin the process of setting up second dose appointments for those who received their first dose from APH.
Watch Friday's news conference below:
People have been reporting to KUT that they’re experiencing technical difficulties with APH’s vaccine signup portal. Escott said Friday the IT team is working around the clock to resolve technical glitches and the agency is also working with outside consultants to solve these issues.
Residents have also expressed frustration because even though they’ve registered with APH, they haven’t been contacted about an appointment yet. APH officials provided some insight during a meeting with city and county officials earlier this week. They said from now on, appointment times are only being posted in the portal on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That way, people don’t need to keep checking back for appointments.
But when appointments are posted, not everyone eligible gets advance notification. APH is prioritizing that advance notification to those they see as most high-risk.
Since there are thousands more signed up on APH’s waitlist than there are vaccines available, APH has been emailing the most high-risk individuals — like those 80 and older — ahead of the release of appointments notifying them when to log onto the APH portal to grab an appointment, to help ensure they are able to get one.
Hayden-Howard clarified on Friday that appointments won’t be posted at the same time each day on Tuesdays and Thursdays; it will vary.
She also said APH is working to improve its advance notification process, since not everyone, particularly older individuals, checks their email regularly. Beginning Monday, APH is teaming up with Travis County to expand its vaccine call center operations. Going forward, people will get an email, typically a day before appointments open, and someone will also give them a call.
“It will be a two-step process, allowing them some time to read the email and then folks will give them a call,” Hayden-Howard said. “It will be based upon when they registered in the system.”
It will take time for APH to move through the waitlist, though.
“I want to caution you all that, in our system, there are over 11,000 that are 80 years of age and older, so all of them will not be called because we don’t have enough vaccine,” Hayden-Howard said.
APH released a flow chart on Tuesday to help people understand if it was their turn to get the vaccine or if they were being put on the waitlist. It was soon after replaced with a different, simplified version. When asked Friday if the chart contributed to people’s confusion surrounding the vaccine distribution, Hayden-Howard said no; the confusion is spurred by the shortage of vaccine and the fact that people can’t simply call their pharmacy or physician and get the shot.
“We will stamp a date on the bottom of any kind of publication we put out to the public because we know it is subject to change,” she said. “And we will also say that things are interim because we know as things change, we may need to reevaluate and change that document or guidance.”
Escott said part of the challenge is that there are "too many unknowns" in this process. APH doesn’t get much advance notice of how many vaccines they’ll receive and when, making it difficult to schedule vaccine appointments weeks out.
“It’s 10:56 on Friday and we don’t have specifics regarding our allocation for Monday,” Escott said. “We certainly anticipate continuing to receive an allocation of 12,000, but it’s not clear to us yet if we’re going to receive 12,000 first doses and 12,000 second doses or just 12,000 doses for second doses.”
He said one reason behind this issue is that there’s uncertainty regarding how much supply is coming to the state each week.
“We’re hopeful that the Biden administration, the manufacturers are going to be able to provide us that advance notice so that we can start to schedule things out in the future,” he said.
For now, health officials encourage people to be patient and recognize that there are some people who need the vaccine right now more than others. Escott said people should reach out to loved ones who are elderly or have underlying conditions to help make sure they’ve signed up for a vaccine.
“There’s a lot of gamesmanship going on right now with vaccine administration around the country, where folks are being dishonest, they’re putting themselves ahead in line when other folks need it,” he said. “It’s important that as a community, we recognize that we are not always first, that sometimes other people need to be in front of us.”
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