Travis County vaccine distribution lingers in Phase 1A as providers await larger shipments

Photo of a man receiving a vaccine
A member of the Austin Fire Department receives a vaccine from Austin Regional Clinic. (Courtesy Austin Regional Clinic)

A member of the Austin Fire Department receives a vaccine from Austin Regional Clinic. (Courtesy Austin Regional Clinic)

Austin Public Health representatives say local distribution of COVID-19 vaccines is still in Phase 1A, which includes frontline health care workers, first responders, and the staff and residents of long-term care facilities. The Texas Department of State Health Services, though, has formally given the green light for vaccine providers to extend access to individuals in Phase 1B—those over the age of 65 or who have certain high-risk medical conditions.

However, APH Director Stephanie Hayden said there simply is not enough vaccine to go around in Travis County, even among health care workers. Austin-area providers have received around 40,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, and an APH representative told Community Impact Newspaper it estimates there are more than 65,000 health care industry workers in the Austin-Travis County area.

“We have a shortage of vaccine. We don’t have vaccine available that we can provide widely in our community,” Hayden told Travis County commissioners Jan. 5.

County commissioners reported receiving calls from local residents who qualify for Phase 1B distribution meeting roadblocks while seeking vaccines on their own, being referred from provider to provider. Some commissioners questioned whether the local area’s distribution efforts should be streamlined with the implementation of a centralized, countywide registration portal, similar to the one APH has used for coronavirus testing.

“Constituents have been contacting me saying, ‘What is going on? Why is it such a mess? Why can’t we get these vaccines?’” Commissioner Brigid Shea said at a Jan. 5 meeting.

According to Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Mark Escott, DSHS has plans to implement localized portals as rollout continues. Some cities, including Houston, have already organized their own portals, but Hayden said such a resource will not be effective until APH receives a much larger shipment of vaccines.

“We would want to be able to receive a significant amount of doses, at least 10,000 or more, to be able to establish that type of process, and so it is important for us to continue to work with the Department of State Health Services so we can receive that type of allocation,” Hayden said at a Jan. 6 news conference.

APH has reported receiving 1,300 doses so far. Other cities’ health departments have received far more. The Houston Health Department’s Immunization Bureau received 7,200 doses during Texas’ third week of distribution, for instance. APH representatives have not commented on why their allocation has been smaller.

Cassandra DeLeon, APH assistant director of disease prevention and health promotion, said the organization is prepared for more wide-scale distribution efforts once larger shipments come in.

“We have significant plans in place to ensure, once we get the product, that we are ready and able to administer vaccine to all that need it with a strategic approach so that we can ensure that individuals that are at highest risk are focused into planned locations so that they are able to access vaccine,” DeLeon said Jan. 6.

Some community leaders have expressed concern that vaccine distribution will not be adequate in certain areas, however. Earlier in the week, six Black elected officials signed a joint statement calling for equitable distribution of the vaccine in neighborhoods hard-hit by the pandemic, particularly in Black and Latino communities. One of the signers, Travis County Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion, reiterated these concerns at court.

“I represent an area that has historically been under-invested in. We don’t have all of the institutions that will probably be the first line of defense for our normal distribution system. We don’t have a lot of H-E-Bs. We don’t have a lot of CVSes,” Travillion said. “How do we make sure that ZIP code area by ZIP code area we understand what the most important community institutions are so that we’re serving the people in those communities?”

Travillion said it would be vital to build “a distribution network within public spaces around the community that aren’t normally distribution centers.” Public schools and churches with commercial kitchens were some of the locations he brought up as options.
By Olivia Aldridge

Multi-Platform Journalist

Olivia hosts and produces Community Impact Newspaper's podcasts, The Austin Breakdown, The Houston Breakdown and The DFW Breakdown. She launched the podcasts after nearly three years as a reporter for the newspaper, covering public health, business, development and Travis County government for the Central Austin edition. Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas.