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Wednesday, February 24, 2021 by Marisa Charpentier, KUT
Austin Public Health plans to administer 37,000 Covid-19 vaccines this week after storm delayed efforts
Austin Public Health is working overtime this week to try to administer 37,000 Covid-19 vaccines after the winter storm delayed vaccination efforts for more than a week.
That number is much higher than what APH has been able to administer per week so far. The staff is extending hours and days of operation at vaccination sites to achieve this, APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard told Travis County commissioners at a meeting Tuesday.
The agency, which began distributing vaccines to the public in mid-January, has administered 56,000 doses to date. It was just beginning to schedule second-dose appointments when the storm hit, forcing the agency to reschedule all of last week’s appointments. The 37,000 number will include a mix of first and second doses, Hayden-Howard said.
“We understand this week is going to be challenging because we are essentially folding in everyone from last week,” she said. “We are basically putting everybody in and are going to get to them as quickly as we can.”
Last week’s power outages nearly caused APH to lose some of its vaccine supply, Hayden-Howard told commissioners. She said the vaccines – which must be kept at a certain temperature range – are stored in three locations, each with a backup generator. The power and backup generator went out at one location, but Emergency Medical Services and the fire department were able to help staff relocate the vials.
“Because of the quick action of all folks and the ability to have locations with backup generators, we did not lose any vaccine,” she said.
The state as a whole lost a week in its time-sensitive effort to get people vaccinated against Covid-19, Texas health officials said during a press conference Tuesday. Imelda Garcia, associate commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services, said about 1.4 million doses of the vaccine are supposed to make it to local providers by Wednesday.
“This week providers will have last week’s allocations and this week’s allocation that they will need to push through in the coming days,” she said.
Because local providers are spearheading “big efforts” to reschedule canceled appointments, Garcia said she anticipates the state will be caught up in about a week and a half.
As temperatures warmed over the weekend, APH was able to resume vaccinations Sunday. The vaccine phone line, which had been out, is now back up and running, Hayden-Howard said. She said if people are struggling to get through to 512-972-5560, they can call 311.
To get a vaccine, people are required to register through APH’s vaccine portal and schedule an appointment. APH will be posting some first-dose appointments in the portal on Thursday this week, an APH spokesperson told KUT. The agency is also implementing a new queuing system.
“When you enter the portal you will now be given a place in line and an estimated time to be able to schedule an appointment based on the demand,” the spokesperson said in an email. “However, by being in line you are not guaranteed an appointment – you must complete the appointment process and receive a confirmation to guarantee your appointment.”
People who got their first dose from APH can get their second dose from APH, too. Hayden-Howard said when it’s time to get the second dose, the patient will get an email or text message; they don’t have to log back in to APH’s system to schedule an appointment.
Second doses can be given four weeks after the first, but it doesn’t have to be given exactly 28 days after, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. APH has said it is trying to give those doses as close to the 28-day mark as possible.
A change in the state’s vaccine distribution process will help make that easier. Previously, vaccine providers had to place an order to the state for how many second doses they needed. Now the state will be automatically shipping second doses to providers.
“That gives us the certainty that the second-dose allocations will be coming on time in four weeks,” Hayden-Howard said.
Hayden-Howard also said pharmacies, like HEB, CVS and Walgreens, should be getting more vaccines this week as part of the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program. Many shipments were held up because of the weather.
Travis County has put together a website called CentralTXVaccs.org that lists the vaccine providers in the 10-county region.
“Even though each provider has a different way that they’re signing folks up, at least this provides you a portal to go in and determine if you can get a vaccine there,” Hayden-Howard said. “It’s definitely a starting place.”
The storm forced APH and others to close Covid-19 testing sites last week, impacting case counts in the region. Hospitals were also functioning in “disaster mode” and had technology issues during the storm, which affected their ability to track Covid hospitalizations, according to Dr. Jason Pickett, the EMS deputy medical director for Austin-Travis County.
Because of these issues, APH won’t be updating some of the data on its Covid-19 dashboards until Saturday, Pickett told the commissioners. That includes the seven-day average of new admissions, which is used to determine the region’s level of risk. Austin-Travis County is currently in stage 4, the second-highest level of APH’s risk-based guidelines.
“We feel that bad data is worse than no data, so as a result we are not calculating that seven-day average until Feb. 27 and we have a solid week of good data,” Pickett said. “Given this last week represents such an extraordinary time in our community and such big changes in behavior, we didn’t feel it would be right to base our risk-based guidelines and staging on that information.”
He said it’s unclear how the storm impacted the spread of disease. The icy roads limited the movement of people, which is good, but a lot of people had to flee homes that lacked heat or had broken pipes and were forced to live in close quarters with family members or friends.
“We’ll have to wait and see what the numbers show to see how this whole weather event impacted the movement of the virus throughout our community,” he said.
KUT’s Ashley Lopez contributed to this story.
This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.
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