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Austin Public Health Officials Say They're Ready To Vaccinate More People. They Just Need The Doses.

A medical student receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Dell Medical School in Austin on Dec. 15, 2020.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A medical student receives a COVID-19 vaccine at Dell Medical School in Austin in December.

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Austin Public Health officials say they're ramping up efforts to vaccinate school staff and child care workers against COVID-19, and they expect the state to include essential workers in priority groups as soon as next week.

APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard urged Austinites to "stay the course" by continuing to social distance and wear masks in light of Gov. Greg Abbott's decision to lift a statewide mask mandate and open businesses.

APH's update Friday comes as the county prepares to receive a shipment of Johnson & Johnson's new, one-dose COVID-19 vaccine and as the state expands its criteria for who is prioritized to get vaccinated.

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State officials announced this week that educators and school staff, as well as child care workers, are now eligible under the state's vaccination plan.

Hayden-Howard said APH is partnering with schools and reaching out to child care operators in what it's calling School Saturday. APH has used the program to vaccinate teachers and child care workers within the 1A and 1B groups since January, but she said it will expand the program starting Saturday.

So far, APH has provided more than 3,700 doses to school staff and child care workers through the School Saturday programs, and it's received more than 10,000 requests for vaccine doses as of Friday morning.

Dr. Mark Escott, APH's interim medical director, said it's likely the Texas Department of State Health Services will widen its vaccine-priority groups to include essential workers.

"We anticipate in the next week or so that a 1C category, which is essential workers, will be added," he said.

Escott and APH's Assistant Director Cassandra DeLeon both said the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will play heavily into the health authority's plans to ramp up vaccinations.

Escott said Austinites shouldn't focus on concerns about the efficacy of the new vaccine, which is being shipped to the area next week.

"It's an excellent vaccine, and it's a vaccine that I anticipate will become more prominent," he said. And because it's single-dose, he said, it's easier to produce than the two-shot vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna.

The efficacy rate for Johnson & Johnson's vaccine is lower than that for the other two vaccines. But, Escott said, its 72% rate is substantially higher than the standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for flu vaccines, which have efficacy rates that range from 10% to 60%. He also noted that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been shown to be more than 85% effective against severe disease.

Currently, there are 218,000 people in APH's five-county area on its vaccine waitlist, DeLeon said – 141,000 of whom live in Travis County. She said the county expects that number to increase, along with the supply of vaccine, in the next few weeks.

To meet that demand, the county is "currently staging" the Toney Burger Center for a mass-vaccination site, and it's looking at the Travis County Expo Center as another possible site.

DeLeon urged folks not to show up at vaccination sites without an appointment, but admitted the online sign-up for vaccines hasn't been perfect.

APH's site has been overloaded with requests for appointments following the governor's announcement that he's lifting the statewide mask mandate. DeLeon said APH is simply not able to seamlessly process the requests. On top of that, there's not enough doses right now to address the demand.

"We know that the website is difficult because the number of people trying to access completely outweighs the number of vaccine we have available," she said.

DeLeon said APH expects its supply to increase next week with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and as larger shipments come in. Right now, the county could vaccinate roughly 36,000 people a week, but it doesn't have the doses.

Corrected: March 8, 2021 at 10:22 AM CST
This story has been updated to clarify the number of people on Austin Public Health's vaccine waitlist.
Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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