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Photo by Marco Verch

City’s vaccination task gets harder

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott has been advising City Council members and Travis County commissioners that there was more demand than the city had available vaccine for all the Travis County residents who want to be protected from Covid-19. But as of Monday night, Austin Public Health was offering 14,000 appointments, yet only 3,400 were booked on the site, Escott and APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard told Council and commissioners at their weekly Covid briefing Tuesday.

“We’ve reached a plateau …. We have to move into the active model, where we’re providing active outreach” to get people vaccinated, Escott said. At the same time, Travis County has seen a 30 percent increase in the moving average of cases since last week after being flat for a while, he said.

Also Tuesday, Escott extended Health Authority Rules through May 18. That means adults and children over 10 years old must continue to wear masks in appropriate settings.

“As more people become vaccinated in our area, we are able to move to more lenient requirements for those individuals,” Escott explained. “However, we have not yet reached herd immunity in our community. To get there, we need more people to acquire immunity, which is why we encourage people to get the vaccine when it is available to them.”

He noted that only about 54 percent of Travis County residents have been fully or partially vaccinated or have had the disease and are not currently vulnerable. That leaves 46 percent of Travis County, or 600,000 people, still vulnerable to the virus. Health department numbers do not reflect how many people may have been vaccinated outside of Austin Public Health and the relatively new Circuit of the Americas vaccination site set up by Ascension Seton hospital network, CommUnityCare Health Centers, and Travis, Bastrop, Hays and Caldwell counties.

To achieve herd immunity, 67-90 percent of the population must be vaccinated.

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, who represents Southeast Austin in District 2, was one of several Council members urging Austin Public Health to change its tactics for getting shots into arms.

“We can clearly see that our online scheduling system is not working,” Fuentes said. “A lot of what we are doing is great, but it’s on the individual to come to us. So they have to hear about our Equity Line. They have to go to our online system and … I really would like us to move to a more neighborhood-model approach, where we go into neighborhoods, get off of the online system and reduce the barrier.

“I think the neighborhood approach is absolutely needed,” she continued, “and we owe it to ourselves to really lean into that strategy and we can claim best practices from it.”

In response to questions from Council members, Hayden-Howard said her department has seven contractors doing outreach to inform people about the availability of the vaccine. Some are even going door-to-door, she said.

People who need to set up an account with APH to get on the list to be vaccinated may now do that by calling 311, she said. “And then our staff will call them back and make an appointment,” as part of the effort to reach hard-hit communities. She said “they are working with folks who have been provided services before, but they’re also going door-to-door to get that information out.”

Council members and Mayor Steve Adler asked a number of pointed questions about whether the health department needs more resources, more staff or a combination of the two, but it was not clear what the answer might be.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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