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
Olivia is the reporter for Community Impact's Central Austin edition. A graduate of Presbyterian College in upstate South Carolina, Olivia was a reporter and producer at South Carolina Public Radio before joining Community Impact in Austin.


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