With the holidays around the corner, leaders from Austin Public Health continue urging residents to take precautions as more front-line workers gain access to COVID-19 vaccines from manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna. While APH representatives said at Dec. 21 news conference that vaccines do represent hope, they are unlikely to curb the high virus transmission rates Travis County is seeing in the short term.

“I don't anticipate that the 30,000 or so vaccines that we received are going to significantly impact the surge itself. What it has the potential to do is help us on the staffing side,” said Dr. Mark Escott, the Austin-Travis County interim health authority. “As we have hospital staff, our paramedics and first responders increasingly immunized against COVID-19, our hope is that we're going to see less impact in terms of absenteeism associated with COVID-19. But the vaccine that we have at this stage is not going to be nearly enough to have any substantial impact on the numbers of new cases and hospitalizations.”

The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Dec. 18—following the Food and Drug Administration’s emergency use authorization of biotechnology company Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine—that the state would receive 460,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, as well as 159,900 additional doses of Pfizer’s vaccine. Of those doses, 25,425 are being distributed by Austin-area hospitals and pharmacies. At this time, the vaccine is still being distributed to the first phase of recipients—health care workers with high exposure to the virus, followed by the staff and residents of long-term care facilities such as nursing homes. With “somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 health care workers in Travis County,” according to Escott, the county has not yet received enough doses to cover those high-priority workers.

APH representatives have said they are following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the DSHS regarding who will subsequently receive the vaccine but have yet to announce specifically which populations will be next in line.

“It's really about balancing the risk of severe disease versus the risk of exposure in how we perform the allocation from here,” Escott said.

The local risk of COVID-19 transmission remains high as vaccine administration continues. As of Dec. 20, the Austin area had a seven-day moving average of 48 daily coronavirus-related hospital admissions and 436 daily confirmed cases, statistics approaching the threshold for Stage 5 community risk, the highest designation of risk locally.

Following the Thanksgiving holidays, Travis County saw a rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, and APH representatives expect to see the same following Christmas and New Year's as gatherings between households increase. To prevent further increases in cases following the holidays, Escott and his colleagues strongly discouraged unnecessary travel, gatherings and outings and urged the community to continue to wear masks outside the home.

“Regardless of if we're in Stage 5 or Stage 4 this Christmas week, it's important to know that we still have to decrease our risk—decrease our personal risks, decrease the risk for our household and decrease the risk for our community,” Escott said.

To learn more about Austin Public Health’s guidance for coronavirus safety during the holidays, visit www.austintexas.gov/holidaysafety.