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City, county partner up to launch Covid vaccine call center

Wednesday, February 3, 2021 by Seth Smalley

Travis County is teaming up with the city of Austin to support a bilingual Covid-19 call center aimed at helping registered residents make appointments to get vaccinated. Stephanie Hayden-Howard, the director of Austin Public Health, told Tuesday’s special joint session of the Commissioners Court and City Council that the phone bank is expected to begin operations by the end of this week or early next week.

Initially, the call center partnership will focus primarily on making outbound calls to people over 80 and those who have already registered online for their vaccine appointments. But Hayden-Howard emphasized the need for flexibility, fully expecting priorities to change as circumstances do.

“We are increasing the ability for people to be able to call and leave a message. That will improve operations,” she said.

Noticing the focus on outbound calls, Commissioner Margaret Gómez asked about the city’s capacity to handle incoming calls for registration.

“Is it possible for folks to also call 311 to register? I had some folks wondering, after having some difficulty in registration.”

Hayden-Howard indicated that 311 will relay callers’ information to the Austin Public Health system, which will subsequently attempt to contact and register them, if needed.

Council Member Alison Alter raised concerns about bureaucracy, pointing out that some online registrants have had to repeatedly give the same answers to redundant questions on different occasions. Hayden-Howard explained that the registration is followed by a screening process – with questions from the Texas Department of State Health Services – to determine if registrants may have been infected between the time of registration and their appointment.

When County Judge Andy Brown asked whether the outbound calls would focus on at-risk groups and the hardest-hit ZIP codes, Hayden-Howard explained the center would end up contacting a variety of people based on two criteria.

“Right now, we are asking them to target 80 years of age and older folks, and anyone that may have not been able to call through previous efforts. That could be a broad group of folks – people that have typically not been able to register for the process,” Hayden-Howard said.

Brown reiterated the need for prioritizing equity in the targeting process. “That was my goal, and I’ll continue to work with you to make sure we can do that,” he said.

Council Member Ann Kitchen, piggybacking off Alter’s concerns about bureaucracy, highlighted the risks involved in only allowing appointment registrations on Tuesdays and Thursdays, which is currently the plan. Kitchen also asked for increased functionality of the system. “Are we working towards the functionality so that when people get registered they receive an email that says here is your appointment, so they do not have to compete with 700,000 other people to get an appointment?”

Though that functionality is not currently being pursued, Hayden-Howard said there will be a time stamp based on time of registration that will ultimately determine the order of vaccinations.

“What we have put in place is the ability to make sure we can schedule folks; they do receive an automatic email that says registration has been approved. But what we have found is that there are people who are not on their email all the time, so that is why we have implemented the call center. That way we can proactively call folks who have registered.”

Hayden-Howard also underscored the fact that the system will be able provide preference options for appointment times.

Though county staffers received training on call center operations yesterday, additional training sessions are anticipated.

The commissioners unanimously voted on a motion establishing funds for the temporary phone bank, consisting of 20 staffers at an estimated cost of $175,355. The phone bank will be located in the County Clerk’s Office.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, which is the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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