COVID-19 rates in Travis County starting to improve, but vaccine distribution remains complicated

Screen shot of a web meeting
Austin Public Health leaders briefed a special joint session of Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court regarding coronavirus on Jan. 19. (Courtesy Travis County)

Austin Public Health leaders briefed a special joint session of Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court regarding coronavirus on Jan. 19. (Courtesy Travis County)

After more than three weeks under Stage 5 coronavirus restrictions, the Austin area seems to have passed its most recent peak of cases, Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County interim health authority, said.

On Jan. 19, at a rare joint meeting of Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court, Escott said the seven-day moving average for new coronavirus hospital admissions at had peaked nine days ago at 94. Since then, the average has oscillated between about 83 and 88.

“This is a good sign. It’s not going down yet, but at least it’s flat, which I think indicates that our community is responding, that they are acting in a more protective way and that we are decreasing transmission,” he said.

The positivity rate among those who are tested for the coronavirus also decreased in the past week at 12.8% compared to the rate of 16.7% in the first week of 2021. However, Escott said the county should be shooting for a rate of 3%-5%, a benchmark Travis County last achieved in October.

In the short term, Escott said general protective measures, such as masking and staying home as much as possible, were the key to reducing transmission. In the long term, however, vaccine distribution will play the integral role in achieving at least 70% immunity among the community—a threshold often cited for achieving “herd immunity.”


But vaccine distribution remains a complicated reality. Now one of the Texas’ regional vaccination hubs, Austin Public Health is receiving larger shipments than most local private providers such as hospitals and pharmacies. APH is set to receive 12,000 doses this week, but that amount still only accounts for a fraction of the 60,672 qualified individuals who have registered through APH’s recently launched vaccination portal.

At present, APH is offering appointments to people who qualify as Phase 1B—those over the age of 65 or who have certain health conditions that put them at higher risk for complications from coronavirus. But demand from that group exceeds supply, meaning that many applicants through APH’s portal have found no available appointment slots when they try to register.

Portal users have encountered technical difficulties with the site as well and resorted to calling the APH nurse line to seek assistance, clogging phone lines intended to serve people without internet access who are seeking vaccines, APH Director Staphanie Hayden-Howard said. She said this may have served as a barrier to people of color, who more often have limited access to the internet, when Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison said she had observed few people of color in line to receive vaccines at public distribution sites.

“Our hope is if we work out the majority of the problems with the site, we can free up that area, and it can work as it’s intended to work. So in the meantime, our staff will be working with our outreach partners to identify folks [in targeted populations],” Hayden-Howard said.

Until larger allocations of the vaccine are given to APH, the issue of limited availability is likely to persist. Several county commissioners said they were hopeful that President-elect Joe Biden’s plan to distribute 100 million vaccine doses within 100 days will be effective in increasing the amount of vaccine in circulation. Escott said the circumstance most likely to kick distribution into higher gear was the expected emergency authorization of a third type of vaccine, one manufactured by pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca, toward the end of January—a cheaper-to-produce vaccine than the Pfizer and Moderna offerings currently available.
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.



MOST RECENT

Council members and housing advocates held a press conference on the state of Austin's housing supply and affordability Nov. 30. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Council lays out priorities for addressing Austin's housing affordability, availability crunch

Officials are likely to vote on a series of policy updates aimed at affordability and housing supply over the coming months.

One group focused on safety during the Long-range Planning Committee's Nov. 30 meeting. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD committee hears parents' concerns, discusses understaffing

Parents' concerns about unappealing food, security and other topics took center stage during the Nov. 30 meeting.

The city will negotiate its contracts will all three emergency services in the coming months. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
City kicks off negations with Austin EMS Association

The city will negotiate its contracts will all three emergency services in the coming months

Photo of a crowd celebrating at a ribbon-cutting
Premier Martial Arts opens new West Anderson Lane studio

The mixed martial arts studio is locally owned and has several locations throughout Austin.

The World Health Organization listed the omicron variant as a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26. The variant was first reported in South Africa. (Courtesy Travis County)
Austin Public Health eyes movement of omicron variant, but has yet to detect a case

The Austin-Travis County area will also remain in Stage 3 because of moderate community transmission rates and rising cases nationwide.

Crust Pizza Co. is opening soon in Montgomery and Willis. (Courtesy Crust Pizza Co.)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: 5 businesses coming to McKinney; Crust Pizza Co. to open two locations in Montgomery, Willis and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Nov. 30.

Assistant City Manager Rodney Gonzalez answered commissioners' and board members' questions at a Nov. 29 meeting. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
South Austin public engagement threatened by land use commissions moving meeting place, commissioners say

Land use commissions are being asked to move meetings from City Hall to a new space in North Austin, but they say the move raises safety issues.

I Live Here I Give Here encourages individuals to donate to nonprofit organizations in their community. (Courtesy I Live Here I Give Here)
I Live Here I Give Here encourages Austinites to donate to local organizations Nov. 30

The nonprofit is encouraging the community to donate for Giving Tuesday on Nov. 30.

The median home price in the Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto area has risen considerably since last October. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: Home sales, costs in Round Rock, Pflugerville and Hutto remain hotter than Greater Austin; Halal Guys opens in Pearland and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Nov. 29.

The Austin Trail of Lights will open nighly from Nov. 28 through Dec. 31. (Courtesy Trail of Lights Foundation)
PHOTOS: Austin Trail of Lights returns to Zilker Park this week

The traditional holiday light show is open from Nov. 28 through New Year's Eve.

Commissioners on Nov. 22 voted to approve a density change to preliminary plans for The Preserve, a neighborhood that city documents said could include 565 single-family homes at the northeast corner of Teel and Panther Creek Parkways. (Courtesy city of Frisco)
CI TEXAS ROUNDUP: Neighborhood near PGA Frisco could see larger lots; ERCOT says Texas power grid ready for expected winter demand and more top news

Take a look at the top five trending stories across Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas in Texas as of Nov. 24.

Local and state officials have made statements welcoming Samsung to Taylor following the announcement that the city will be home to its new $17 billion semiconductor fabrication plant. (Courtesy KXAN)
State, local officials react to Texas governor, Samsung joint announcement

Local and state officials have made statements welcoming Samsung to Taylor following the announcement that the city will be home to its new $17 billion semiconductor fabrication plant.