Amid flattening data, Austin-area health leaders focus on improving coronavirus vaccine rollout
Austin-Travis County health officials on Tuesday said the spread of the coronavirus locally is starting to level out, allowing health care workers to focus more on vaccinating residents in the coming weeks.
Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard and Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, on Tuesday updated the Austin City Council and Travis County commissioners on the latest coronavirus data and trends. But they spent much of the meeting focused on vaccine distribution in the Austin area, where many of the city and county leaders questioned the efficiency of the local vaccine rollout.
As Austin Public Health this week distributes its second shipment of 12,000 initial doses of the coronavirus vaccine, local leaders were concerned that qualifying Austin-area residents wouldn't be contacted for an appointment because of ongoing technical issues.
Many Austin-Travis County residents complained last week that the new Austin Public Health pre-registration site would repeatedly crash as they tried to sign up for a vaccine shot. APH officials asked for patience, saying the website was overloaded with residents trying to register.
Hayden-Howard on Tuesday offered a possible solution to fix one of the site's main problems, which was not letting residents sign into the site with their user name and password.
Hayden-Howard said residents should now include ".aph" at the end of their user name. Each resident's user name should be their email along with the new ending — for example, "Johndoe@gmail.com.aph".
Even though the new website had technical issues last week, as many as 166,672 Texans were still able to pre-register for the vaccine, Austin Public Health officials said.
Of those who pre-registered, 60,672 immediately qualify to receive the vaccine once available, according to Hayden-Howard.
Texas this week received 333,650 first doses of COVID-19 vaccine, according to officials from the Texas Department of State Health Services. Those doses were shipped straight to 260 providers across Texas.
Residents would be notified by either email or phone call when it's their turn to receive a vaccine, APH officials on Tuesday said.
However, some residents told Austin-area leaders that they booked appointments this week by simply refreshing the vaccine sign-up portal until an appointment popped up.
Austin Public Health officials said those appointments only pop up when someone cancels — and that won't happen often enough for residents to rely on repeatedly checking the system.
Hayden-Howard said while those 65 or older, or younger if they have underlying health conditions, will still get vaccinated this week, Austin Public Health officials plan to focus on vaccinating teachers.
"We are prioritizing educational staff," Hayden-Howard said. "Those who are working in public, private and charter schools. We started that process yesterday and will continue that effort this week."
In addition to Austin Public Health, Dell Medical School at the University of Texas will receive 1,950 doses this week. Austin Public Health and UT Health are considered the two main hubs in Travis County, where the state sends the majority of vaccine each week.
Pharmacies at places like H-E-B, CVS and Walgreens will eventually become hubs in Travis County, but they currently do not have any vaccine, according to Escott.
Other providers in Travis County also received smaller shipments of doses this week. Residents can go to the Texas Department of State Health Services' website to see which clinics currently have vaccine.
Troubling data flattening
Escott on Tuesday said while new hospital admissions related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, are no longer increasing at alarming rates, projections from the University of Texas show intensive care units will remain near the maximum capacity of 200 until mid-February.
Health care workers told Austin Public Health they cannot handle more than 200 ICU coronavirus patients and still properly care for other critical non-COVID patients.
Of the 2,473 staffed beds within the three health care systems of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare on Tuesday, 73% were occupied. But of the 483 ICU beds in the same three health care systems, 91% were occupied.
Patients for COVID-19 being treated in local ICUs increased by 101% since last month, according to Escott.
Austin-Travis County entered a surge after the year-end holidays that brought record-breaking numbers of total coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and more.
Even on Saturday, the Austin area still saw record-breaking numbers regarding the seven-day average for new ICU admissions.
Hoping to help alleviate the burden on health care workers, Austin Public Health opened a field hospital at the Austin Convention Center to care for coronavirus patients who face the lowest risk of severe symptoms. As of Tuesday, 10 coronavirus patients were being cared for at the alternate care site.
The Travis County sheriff's office on Tuesday said 39 new inmates at Travis County Jail tested positive for COVID-19. In addition to the inmates, 22 new Travis County sheriff's office employees also tested positive.
Austin-Travis County will likely remain in Stage 5 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines until mid-February.
Projections from the University of Texas regarding the severity of disease in Travis County show new cases and new hospital admissions are likely to level out if the data continues on its current track. Escott credited the positive change to Austin-Travis County residents wearing masks, keeping socially distant and practicing good hygiene to decrease their risk of contracting the virus.
"This is a good sign," Escott said. "It’s not going down yet, but it’s at least flat. Our community is responding and acting in a more responsible way."