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(City of Austin)

Austin public health officials pointed to some positive signs—an apparent flattening of new confirmed COVID cases and related hospitalizations as well as a falling community positivity rate—during a special joint meeting of the City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday. But they also tried to manage the public's expectations regarding the ongoing vaccine rollout, which remains slow due to limited supply.

Local COVID curve may have reached its latest peak

After an alarming surge in cases in Austin, and across Texas, following Christmas and New Year's, there are signs that the curve is flattening. The moving average number of COVID-related hospital admissions hit a peak of 94 nine days ago and now is around 88.

"This is a good sign," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said. "It's not going down yet, but it's at least flat, which I think indicates that our community is responding."

(Austin-Travis County COVID-19 Public Dashboard)

Hospital capacity has been a particular concern in recent weeks. The state opened up an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center downtown earlier this month as area ICUs neared capacity, and 10 low- to mild-acuity COVID patients are currently being cared for there.

Updated projections from the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium at the University of Texas at Austin, which rely on hospital admission numbers and mobility numbers, now estimate the pandemic will remain flat locally, an improvement from last week when they indicated a worsening crisis.

Similarly, the community positivity rate has also fallen, from 16.2% during the second week of January to 12.8% this past week. "This is a positive indication that things may be slowing significantly," Escott said.

(Austin Public Health)

Still, Travis County remains in Stage 5 according to Austin Public Health's risked-based guidelines—the highest state. The goal positivity rate is 3% or lower, which would allow for less severe restrictions for residents and businesses.

Vaccine supply remains low

Six weeks into the federal vaccine rollout, Austinites remain frustrated by the limited supply of vaccines and mixed messages from state and local officials about who qualifies for a shot—and where to find them.

For the last two weeks, APH has been the only or the main recipient of vaccines from the Texas Department of State Health Services, receiving 24,000 doses and being designated as a hub provider because of its ability to stand-up mass distribution events. Still, the demand for vaccine among individuals in the 1A and 1B priority group far outweighs supply.

Since APH launched a pre-registration system last week, more than 166,000 people have created accounts, despite some tech issues. Of those, more than 60,000 qualify for a vaccine according to the current guidelines, Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said. Most of them—nearly 90%—are 60 years of age or older.

APH opened some appointments for its latest batch of 12,000 doses, which were claimed within two hours, according to a department spokesperson. Additional appointments will become available later this week.

But many individuals in the priority groups continue to run into roadblocks, overwhelming area providers and their local elected officials with phone calls that often lead nowhere.

This is because Travis County has received 87,825 doses of the vaccine, compared to the 285,000 residents who fall in the 1A and 1B priority groups.

"It is critical that we manage expectations," City Manager Spencer Cronk said.

Escott offered some glimmers of hope amid the current frustrations.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve an emergency use authorization for the AstraZeneca vaccine later this month, which could increase the federal supply.

"Our hope is that we can increase the volume of vaccine available," he said, adding that many local providers—including H-E-B, Austin Regional Clinic, CVS, Walgreens and UT Health Austin, in addition to APH—are capable to administer thousands of vaccines a day once they have the doses needed to do so.


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