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Austin Public Health expands COVID-19 vaccine appointments to 18-plus age group, officials say

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman

Austin Public Health leaders on Friday announced plans to expand its age eligibility for the coronavirus vaccine to anyone 18 years or older starting Monday.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said vaccine eligibility is able to expand once again because the demand for appointments by the 40-plus age group is continuing to decrease.

The age eligibility for Austin Public Health first dropped to the 40-plus group on April 5 because those who were previously given priority — everyone in the Phase 1A, 1B and 1C sub-groups designated by the Texas Department of State Health Services — did not schedule all of the appointments that were available the week before.

The Phase 1A, 1B and 1C sub-groups include front-line health care workers, residents at long-term care facilities, people 65 and older, people 16 and older with a health condition, school and licensed child care personnel and people 50 to 64 years old.

Dr. Karen Smith draws up doses of Pfizer vaccines to administer at a drive-thru vaccine center held at the Manor High School stadium on April 1.

Gov. Greg Abbott opened up vaccine eligibility to all Texans 16 years or older, regardless of health conditions, on March 29. However, Austin Public Health leaders were allowed to give priority to the sub-groups first. 

Austin Public Health, though, has not been able to vaccinate anyone younger than 18 years old so far because the Texas Department of State Health Services has only allocated Moderna vaccines to the agency, which is not yet approved for 16- or 17-year-olds. 

Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, said it's important for Austin Public Health to begin allowing younger residents to receive a vaccine to help reduce the spread of disease among essential workers. 

However, Hayden-Howard said any residents in the 65-plus age group who have yet to schedule a coronavirus vaccine and do not have access to Austin Public Health's website should call 311 to get help to secure a dose. 

Austin and Travis County residents for months have been especially aware of vaccine eligibility through Austin Public Health because the agency each week receives about 12,000 coronavirus vaccine doses from the state, which is the largest allocation that usually comes to the area.

However, many Austin and Travis County vaccine providers separate from Austin Public Health have for the past two weeks worked to vaccinate those younger than 40. 

Texas Department of State Health Services data on Friday showed that 68.6% of Travis County residents who are 65 years or older have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine, while 52.1% are fully vaccinated. 

The data also shows that about 40% of those 16 and older have received one dose, while 23% are fully vaccinated. 

Many Texans have been especially eager for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one dose compared to two doses with Moderna and Pfizer.

However, state providers will likely only receive about 130,000 of the Johnson & Johnson doses next week compared to the previously expected 500,000 after a manufacturing error at a Baltimore plant recently ruined 15 million doses.

Texas should still receive more than 2 million doses of coronavirus vaccines next week, so Austin Public Health leaders said they do not expect their shipment of 12,000 doses to be affected. 

It's still unclear, though, how many other Travis County providers might be affected because of the manufacturing error. 

Escott on Friday said that while residents wait for more vaccine appointments to open up across Austin and Travis County next week, everyone should be especially cautious to keep social distancing practices in place. 

Escott said projections from the University of Texas now show Travis County will not reach Stage 2 of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines until at least mid-May because coronavirus cases in the area are no longer decreasing as rapidly as needed. 

Travis County's adolescent residents will likely not get approved to receive vaccines until late summer or even fall, so it's important that the area continues to work hard to avoid a surge until reaching herd immunity, Escott said.