Austin Public Health says it could be months before community reaches next phase of vaccine distribution

Graphic of a flowchart
Austin Public Health uses this flowchart to help determine vaccine eligibility. (Courtesy Austin Public Health)

Austin Public Health uses this flowchart to help determine vaccine eligibility. (Courtesy Austin Public Health)

Austin Public Health, Travis County’s largest provider of COVID-19 vaccines, will likely remain in Phase 1B of distribution for several more months, according to a top official at the organization.

APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said at a Feb. 2 joint session of Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court that 532,339 people had preregistered to receive a vaccine through APH’s online registration portal. Of those registrants, 188,825 qualify for a vaccine under Phases 1A and 1B of distribution in Texas, which includes front-line health care workers, long-term care facility residents, people over age 65 and people with certain medical conditions.

If Austin Public Health continues to receive a weekly allocation of 12,000 initial doses from the Texas Department of State Health Services, as it has for the past several weeks, it will take around 16 weeks to vaccinate all the qualified individuals currently preregistered through APH.

“We’re working through our system, and we’re updating the system, but there are quite a few users,” Hayden-Howard said. “We’re going to do everything we can to get to people in a timely manner.”

Several factors could impact the timeline laid out by Hayden-Howard; for instance, if the U.S. Food & Drug Administration were to authorize an additional vaccine for emergency use in the United States, vaccine supply could increase and eventually lead to APH receiving larger allocations. Additionally, APH is one of a number of vaccine providers in the county, and some of APH's registrants could receive vaccines from a different provider and remove themselves from the APH waiting list.

Hayden-Howard shared a flowchart APH uses to determine whether a registrant is currently qualified to receive a vaccine. Factors considered include age and health conditions as well as insurance status and whether the individual belongs to a group "disproportionately affected" by COVID-19.

Because APH has processed so many qualified applicants, many people in Phases 1A and 1B have been unable to book an appointment. APH opens new appointments as more doses are received and sends emails through the portal to qualified registrants. However, those individuals are still competing for limited slots. Moving forward, Hayden-Howard said new appointments will be posted only on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the interest of simplifying the process.

This week, APH established a new resource for vaccine-seekers. Travis County commissioners voted Feb. 2 to approve the creation of a temporary phone bank in partnership with the city of Austin, APH and the Travis County Clerk’s Office to perform outreach calls to help the area’s most vulnerable residents set up appointments.

The call center will be up and running by late this week or early next week, Travis County Budget Director Travis Gatlin said. Based out of the county clerk’s office, it will be staffed by elections workers, who will primarily focus on connecting with people over age 80 who have not been able to register for vaccine appointments online, as well as with other high-risk individuals who may have had trouble accessing APH’s portal. Staffers will also call to ensure individuals set up appointments for their second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

“Just like they helped voters, they will be able to help our senior citizens,” Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said.

The phone bank is currently budgeted to remain open until April at a cost of $170,355 to the county. Operations are being funded with dollars designated for COVID-19 emergencies in the county’s general fund.
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.