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As COVID Vaccine Appointments Again Go Unfilled, Austin Public Health Looks To Partner With More Grassroots Organizations

A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Austin on March 27.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A man receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Austin last month.

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After another week of leftover COVID-19 vaccine appointments, Austin Public Health is looking to shift its vaccination efforts and adjust its online sign-up system.

“We must be flexible,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said during a news conference Friday. “Our goal is to provide vaccines to our community and meet them where they are.”

To do this, she said, the department plans to partner with more grassroots organizations, as well as go to apartment complexes and community centers, and change its hours of operations. On Friday, for example, APH is partnering with the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians to set up a vaccine clinic at Emo's for local musicians.

The department is also looking to change its online appointment scheduler. Right now, APH opens up the scheduler only a couple evenings a week, meaning people must be available to go online during those times to snag an appointment. Cassandra DeLeon, chief administrative officer for the APH Disease Prevention and Health Promotion Division, said the agency is considering opening the scheduler around the clock.

APH released appointments multiple evenings this week, but she said it still had appointments left over after the latest release Thursday night.

“We are working to try to fill those appointments to make sure that we are able to offer the vaccine to all individuals who are looking for that,” DeLeon said. “That is an indicator that there are additional ways we need to try to open the vaccine scheduler to ensure that folks are able to schedule whenever they go online to look for a vaccine.”

This coming week, APH will keep the appointment scheduler open longer than normal. It will be open from 7 p.m. Saturday to 7 a.m. Tuesday. Anyone 18 and older is eligible. To schedule, people must set up an account and log in here.

Providers across the state are having a harder time signing people up and are asking to receive fewer doses, health officials said Thursday.

Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said he doesn’t think the leftover appointments is a sign that not enough people want the vaccine. He said this change in demand was expected.

“This is certainly what we anticipated was going to be the progression of vaccine supply and administration for us, across Texas and across the country,” he said. “We were going to have a period where demand far exceeds supply and then we’re going to have a period where vaccine supply and demand are in steady state, so we plateau out, and then we’re going to go into a phase where vaccine supply exceeds demand.”

Now that more providers in Travis County are administering the vaccine, Escott said, APH can transition back to its status as a “safety-net” provider, focusing on people who can’t easily access vaccines.

“Part of the APH strategy all along has been to ramp up those efforts of outreach and transition from a passive model of vaccination to an active model,” he said.

Hayden-Howard said APH plans to request fewer vaccines in the future.

“We will decrease the number of vaccines that we are receiving to have the footprint of being the safety-net provider once we have more folks that have received the vaccine in Travis County,” she said.

Though vaccination efforts have ramped up, Austin and Texas are far from herd immunity. COVID-19 is still spreading, and Escott warned Friday that cases and hospitalizations have been increasing in the area. He said the average of daily new cases increased 25% over the past week, and the number of new COVID hospital admissions could rise to 30 on Friday, nearly double the recent average of daily hospital admissions.

“It’s not a surge yet, but it gives us concern that there is still efficient transmission of disease in our community,” Escott said. “It is critical for us to continue those protections, continue to mask, continue to distance, continue to wash our hands and stay home when we’re sick in order for us to drive down disease and buy us more time to get more people vaccinated.”

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

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Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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