For the last four months, we have been writing different versions of the same story when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines: some are on the way, but be patient because supply is still extremely limited.
That story has not changed yet, but we're starting to slowly see some movement. About 16% of Travis County residents age 16 or older have now received at least one dose, and about 8% of eligible residents are now fully vaccinated.
It will be a while before there is enough supply for all adults in the community—President Joe Biden said he would like to see that nationwide by the end of May. With supply still limited, thousands are still rushing to the Austin Public Health website to get in line for an appointment within minutes of the local health provider opening up time slots.
But more than 1 million first doses are on the way to Texas this week, including more than 245,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine recently approved for emergency use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
We're getting there. We just need to hang on a little longer.
—Jack Flagler, editor, Central Austin and Southwest Austin/Dripping Springs editions
Vaccine eligibility expands
Educators working with students from the pre-primary through secondary grade levels and child care workers are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. The decision by the Department of State Health Services came after a long period of lobbying by educators across Texas—including groups in Austin—to prioritize teachers and other school employees in the state's distribution. Until last week, only educators who had an underlying condition or were age 65 or older were eligible for the vaccine.
The expansion of eligibility is likely to continue in the coming days.
"We anticipate in the next week or so a 1C category will be added which will include essential workers as well," Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said Friday.
As of Friday, APH director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said there are 218,000 eligible people pre-registered in the vaccine provider's online system, about 65% of which are from Travis County. That number will likely grow quickly with thousands of new eligible residents, and APH leaders say they recognize that so far the technology has not been sufficient to meet the demand.
"I’m on site every day at our vaccine sites and I see the anguish that people are experiencing," said Cassandra DeLeon, APH's assistant director for disease prevention and health promotion.
Escott said the tech issues Austin is having are shared across public health organizations statewide and nationwide.
"I think one of the biggest failures of public health across the country has been its investment in information technology," he said. "We have struggled for a year now with that IT infrastructure."
Mask mandate lifts Wednesday
Governor Greg Abbott announced last week that Texas will no longer have a statewide mask mandate, which was met swiftly by dozens of Austin breweries, restaurants, coffee shops and bars—from Austin Beerworks to to Better Half Coffee & Cocktails, Veracruz All Natural and Yellow Jacket Social Club—announcing on social media that their mandatory mask policies won't be changing.
The Texas Education Agency is leaving mask policy up to local school boards, and in Central Texas, school districts including Austin, Dripping Springs, Eanes, Lake Travis, Leander and Round Rock will all keep their requirements in place.
H-E-B says masks at its stores will remain, signs saying masks are required will stay up, employees and vendors will be covering their faces at work and the grocer will "continue to expect" shoppers to wear masks in its stores.
In a statement released after he announced the lifting of the mandate and the opening of businesses to 100% capacity, Abbott said COVID-19 has not disappeared and urged Texans to continue protecting their safety and the safety of others.
"Today's announcement does not abandon safe practices that Texans have mastered over the past year. Instead, it is a reminder that each person has a role to play in their own personal safety and the safety of others," Abbott said Wednesday in a statement.
Escott worried that message will get lost, and hopes people take it onto themselves to continue wearing masks when out in public.
"It is effectively a moral imperative people wear masks," he said.
Other news to know:
—Reporter Nicholas Cicale spoke with local farmers whose crops were devastated by the winter storm and freeze. If you're going to a local farmers market, don't expect too much produce for the next few weeks. And if you'd like to help, organizations such as the Sustainable Food Center and Texas Farmers Market have set up ways to donate.
—The fallout from the energy crisis following the Feb. 14 winter storm continues. Austin Energy General Manager Jacqueline Sargent has resigned from the Energy Resource Coalition of Texas's board of directors. The 16-seat board now has nine vacancies. The board also voted to terminate CEO Bill Magness on Wednesday.
—In a sad piece of business news, Alamo Drafthouse has decided to permanently close The Ritz location in downtown Austin. The locally based chain of theaters also shuttered a location in New Braunfels and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. However, Alamo Drafthouse said on Twitter it "isn't going anywhere." It is still showing movies at its open venues, and as vaccine distribution expands it plans to open the rest of its locations—plus a few new ones.