After Austin Public Health appointments go unfilled, officials call for new distribution model

Photo of hands holding a vaccine vial
Austin Public Health filled 3,400 out of 14,000 available appointments during a recent vaccine registration window. (Sandra Sadek/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin Public Health filled 3,400 out of 14,000 available appointments during a recent vaccine registration window. (Sandra Sadek/Community Impact Newspaper)

Austin Public Health, one of Travis County’s largest providers of coronavirus vaccines, has struggled to fill appointments this week, with 3,400 appointments taken up out of the 14,000 available during the organization’s Monday evening registration window April 12. The registration period was the first that APH opened to all adults.

In an April 13 presentation to Travis County commissioners and Austin City Council members, APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard acknowledged that the lack of sign-ups indicates a need to shift strategies as vaccine hesitancy and barriers to access become more visible.

“In conversation with some of my colleagues across the state of Texas, a lot of us are getting to a point where we know we’re going to have to pivot and change strategies, because now we’re at a point where there is more vaccine that’s readily available in our community,” Hayden-Howard said.

In order to reach herd immunity—or the status at which enough of the population is immunized to by and large prevent the spread of a disease—Travis County will need high vaccine uptake from residents. According to projections by the APH, 843,549 people, or 67% of the county’s population must be vaccinated to reach the minimum threshold for herd immunity. So far, 447,152 local residents have received at least one dose, according to county data.

City and county officials, including District 2 Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, pushed APH to emphasize community-based strategies.

“We need to move to a neighborhood model, go offline and partner with trusted [organizations] to outreach,” Fuentes said in a tweet. “Clearly the online scheduling system isn’t working.”

APH has partnerships with several community organizations already, including Family Eldercare and Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which help APH provide vaccines to homebound and hard-to-reach residents. Hayden-Howard said the mobile team would look at providing vaccines at certain apartment complexes in the future as well. APH has also hosted clinics at churches; one is scheduled for this weekend at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in East Austin.

Moving forward, Hayden-Howard said APH would meet every Friday with partners UT Health Austin, UT Nursing School, CommUnityCare and Central Health to discuss possible gaps in vaccine administration and how to address them. In particular, Hayden-Howard said they would focus on residents in the Eastern Crescent, an area Austin-Travis County interim Health Authority Mark Escott said struggles with lack of transportation and access to health care in general.

“The reason we’re struggling in East Austin is because we always struggle in East Austin—because there is no proper infrastructure, because there aren't health care providers, because people don't have access to pharmacies and doctors offices and community health workers to the same extent that they do west of I-35,” Escott said.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown, who has spearheaded drive-thru vaccination events at the Circuit of The Americas in recent weeks, said the county was in talks with private providers to create an additional clinic in eastern Travis County. This weekend, county staff will also join with a team from the constables’ office to do vaccine outreach at apartment complexes. These efforts, Brown said, were aimed at distributing vaccine more equitably to Black and Latino residents and reducing barriers to appointments with clinics “where you can either walk up, or the clinics come to you.”

APH’s online portal remains the primary mode of registration for the time being. APH announced it would open a new registration window to appointment-holders at 6:45 p.m. on April 13, deviating from the organization’s established Monday and Thursday appointment release schedule.
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.