Austin Public Health discusses vaccination priorities, registration protocol as regional hub

PHoto of a vaccine being administered
Austin Public Health is moving forward with larger-scale vaccination efforts. (Courtesy Texas Children’s Hospital)

Austin Public Health is moving forward with larger-scale vaccination efforts. (Courtesy Texas Children’s Hospital)

With Austin Public Health’s new designation as a Texas regional vaccination hub, local health leaders said their first concern is vaccinating the most vulnerable, high-priority residents. The organization’s new vaccine registration portal, which went live the morning of Jan. 13, includes a questionnaire to determine applicants' eligibility, with priority given to individuals in Phases 1A and 1B: health care workers, long-term care facility residents, people over age 65 and those with certain high-risk medical conditions.

APH Director Stephanie Hayden said more than 20,000 people had already created accounts to pre-register through the portal by 10 a.m. the day of launch. Not all of those applicants will be offered an appointment, as APH's current vaccine shipment only includes 12,000 doses.

“Priority right now is individuals that are 65 years of age and older, including our communities of color,” Hayden said at a Jan. 12 news conference. “It is going to be so important that if we have elderly family members in our family—that we sign them up and put them ahead of the line.”

However, reports from some vaccine recipients have emerged on social media this week contradicting APH’s stated policy to ensure high-priority populations receive doses first. At what Hayden called a “closed pod” clinic at the Delco Activity Center in Northeast Austin on Jan. 12, several individuals reported showing up and waiting in line for a few hours before eventually receiving a vaccine.

Hayden claimed this was not a clear-cut case of unqualified individuals cutting in line but rather of distributing leftover vaccine at the end of the day rather than wasting it; since the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines currently available require cold or ultra-cold storage, their shelf life is limited once the product has thawed.

Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said it is possible such an instance could occur again if appointment no-shows and other unforeseen circumstances result in leftover vaccine at risk of spoiling.

“The absolute priority for every vaccine provider is, ‘Do not waste vaccine,’” Escott said. “We are going to continue to see circumstances where people outside that 1A and 1B group get vaccinated in small numbers because [providers] have to get it out. Sometimes, that's within a few hours, sometimes a little bit longer, but the vaccine has to be used. Vaccine is not wasted if it is in the arm of a Texan.”

When a person from a lower vaccination tier manages to get a dose ahead of people in groups 1A and 1B, they are still guaranteed the second dose needed to be fully immunized. Hayden said providers are required to offer a second dose where a first was given after the requisite number of days.

However, Hayden also implied that APH would be cracking down on this occurrence now that the public pre-registration portal was in place.

“Moving forward, we will not be able to provide vaccines to individuals that show up at those sites and don’t have an appointment,” she said.

Site information about the first four APH vaccination sites will be released Jan. 14, Hayden said, with more to come. Private providers also continue vaccinations, and Hayden recommended that people who have insurance go through primary care physicians and pharmacies if possible so that APH can reserve doses for uninsured residents.

In the future, Escott said, distribution should expand beyond Phases 1A and 1B to include essential workers and the general public as the Texas Department of State Health Services receives more doses and makes further allocations to providers, including APH. Escott said this expansion would likely occur once the U.S. Food and Drug Administration authorizes the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is cheaper to produce and easier to store.

However, Escott also admonished Travis County residents not to let down their guard that a vaccine is close at hand—especially now, with coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in the area at an all-time high.

“We cannot vaccinate our way out of this surge. That's going to take us sacrificing making decisions to protect ourselves, to protect our family and to protect our community,” he said.
By Olivia Aldridge

Reporter, Central Austin

Olivia joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in March 2019. She covers public health, business, development and Travis County government. A graduate of Presbyterian College in South Carolina, Olivia worked as a reporter and producer for South Carolina Public Radio before moving to Texas. Her work has appeared on NPR and in the New York Times.