For two weeks in January, Donna Snyder had one focus: finding a COVID-19 vaccine appointment. The 69-year-old, who lives near Lake Travis, scoured newspaper pages, watched the news and tuned in to city press conferences. She signed up for waitlists in Austin, Fredericksburg and Waco, as well as in Collin and Williamson counties.
"It became my full-time job," she told Austonia.
On Jan. 22, Snyder received an email from Family Hospital Systems, a provider in Williamson County, alerting her that appointments were available. "I signed up that day," she said. Within 90 minutes, she had received her first shot. Her second appointment is scheduled for this week.
Although Snyder was "totally impressed" with the FHS system, she remains frustrated with Austin Public Health. "I am utterly angry and a thousand times disappointed at how poor the Austin process is," she said. "As far as Austin goes, I still need a vaccine."
Nearly three months into the vaccine rollout, Austinites continue to face long waitlists mired by technical glitches and report concerns about scheduling their second dose appointments. The fundamental problem is inadequate supply: with this week's allocation, Travis County will have received 233,515 initial doses, or enough to vaccinate 47% of residents who are currently eligible. (Nearly half of Travis County residents 16 and older fall into groups 1A and 1B, according to Texas Department of State Health Services data.) But Snyder and many other residents say that poor communication is making a stressful process worse.
"I would like an explanation for why the city of Austin, with all of the extraordinarily brilliant tech people in this town … why they screwed it up so bad," she said.
A decentralized process
DSHS established a number of vaccine hubs—including Austin Public Health—in mid-January, shifting its distribution strategy to focus on these sites in an effort to simplify the sign-up process and funnel doses to those providers capable of vaccinating 100,000 people or more. Shortly after, APH debuted its vaccine waitlist, through which it schedules appointments. Since Jan. 11, APH has received 12,000 doses weekly.
More than 306,000 people have registered through APH, with more than 229,000 meeting the current eligibility criteria. Of those, approximately 194,000—or 85%—are still waiting for an appointment. The department does not open up appointment slots until it receives doses from the state in an attempt to avoid cancellations. but this leads to limits the notice APH can provide and often leads to a stressful rush, users told Austonia.
"The vaccine supply is the rate-limiting step in getting everybody vaccinated and getting people protected," Austin-Travis County Deputy Medical Director Dr. Jason Pickett said during a Friday press conference.
But users also report problems using the waitlist. City staff are continuously working on improvements, including registering people who showed up in the early days of the rollout without an appointment and require a second dose and sifting through users who created multiple accounts with different email addresses, APH leadership said at the same event. "We are seeing things run so much better," Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard added.
Having tech problems while pre-registering for the #COVID19 vaccination at https://t.co/uNEZHhMj3c? As our team works to resolve issues, try these tips:
💻 Add .APH to the end of your email to log in
📧 Check your spam
⏰ Try again later
📌 FAQs: https://t.co/dIHOFmAbpG pic.twitter.com/zk5DSjvfaF
— Austin Public Health (@AusPublicHealth) January 28, 2021
The department also established a new queuing system last week: when first dose appointments are available for scheduling, registrants will be added to a queue and receive a place in line with an estimated wait time until they are at the front of the line; at that point, they will have 10 minutes to make an appointment.
Some Austinites have compared APH's waitlist to Williamson County's centralized model, which opened on Feb. 8 and currently has around 190,000 registrants. Public Affairs Manager Connie Odom said the county developed the centralized model so that residents didn't have to register on multiple lists. The central list allows users to update their information and remove themselves if they make an appointment elsewhere. "I think that puts people's minds at ease," she said.
APH does not have such a centralized system. "Since the vaccine distribution and allocation process is very decentralized, it is incredibly difficult to make a single, centralized waitlist that encompasses the availability of hundreds of providers, all of which have different processes for registration," a spokesperson wrote in an email to Austonia.
DSHS has allocated more vaccines to more providers in Travis County than in Williamson County, reflecting differences in population. Although the centralized waitlist is a welcome improvement to some, it is not a panacea.
Hank Ewert, 69, lives in the Brentwood neighborhood and secured a vaccine appointment last week through the Williamson County waitlist. When he arrived at the scheduled time, he and the others in line with him were told their appointments had been rescheduled due to shipping delays caused by the winter storm. "You can't fault them for canceling the vaccinations if there's no vaccine," he said. "But I think they should have texted everyone."
Ewert is worried that the delay may mean it's another month before he is able to get his first shot. He and his wife are now looking for an appointment elsewhere. "I would not mind having two appointments set up at one time," he said. "I know it's going to improve as more and more vaccine gets distributed, but right now the whole availability system seems so fragile that it seems best to try everything."
The second dose shuffle
Another common complaint from eligible Austinites is the waiting game between their first and second shots.
Genevieve McKinster, 81, lives in a senior community in North Austin and received her first shot through APH on Jan. 27. There was a glitch—when she arrived for her 11 a.m. appointment; she was told her appointment wasn't in the system—but luckily she had printed out her appointment details and brought it with her. "I cried when I got my first shot," she said. "I wanted it so bad."
Now McKinster is back where she started, anxiously awaiting a confirmation email for her second appointment. She said she probably spends two to three hours a day checking her inbox and spam folder for an update. "I just don't trust them to email me," she said.
Tilak Khetrapals, 81, feels the same way. The South Austin resident received his first shot on Jan. 20 from APH's Delco Activity Center vaccine site. Nearly six weeks later, he's still waiting to hear about his second dose. "They're not communicating," he said. "That is the problem."
Like many providers, APH is reaching out to patients directly to schedule second dose appointments. Although Pfizer and Moderna recommend three and four weeks between doses, respectively, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the second shot may be administered up to six weeks later.
Although APH generally does not allow for walk-ups, people who received their first dose through the department and have not received information about their second dose within the 42-day period may show up at any APH vaccine site, present their vaccine card and receive a second dose.
Deirdre Strand, 65, lives in South Austin and registered for a vaccine through APH, Austin Regional Clinic and Williamson County, where she ultimately was able to secure an appointment on Feb. 3. "It was an absolutely easy, breezy, very coordinated procedure," she said.
Although Strand has not yet heard about her second shot, she has stopped looking for alternative sites. "I'm not going to spend my entire day waiting to sign up for things and put myself on another waiting list when I truly have been blessed to get my first shot," she said. But she also has a backup plan. If she doesn't hear back from Williamson County about her second shot, she plans to show up at the site where she received her first dose this week. "All I can think of is they must be able to give me my second shot that day," she said.
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A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
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Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
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