After state expands COVID vaccine access to Group 1B, Austinites find doses remain extremely limited
Over the last week, the Capital Medical Clinic on West 38th Street has been "besieged" with phone calls.
The callers all want to know the same thing: Is the clinic offering COVID-19 vaccines to members of Group 1B? The group includes people 65 years of age and older and those with a chronic medical condition.
The answer, at least for now, is no, said Dr. James Marroquin, an internal medicine doctor who practices at the clinic.
Instead, Capital Medical Clinic is working to allocate its 500 doses to individuals in the 1A group, including its own clinical staff and other front-line healthcare workers.
Many of Travis County's 58 other facilities that have received vaccine allotments are in the same boat.
Austin Regional Clinic, Austin Public Health, H-E-B Pharmacy and many other local providers are limiting their vaccine supply to members of group 1A, which include front-line healthcare workers, first responders and long-term care facility staff and residents.
Austin's three hospital systems—Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's HealthCare—are doing the same.
"Once we have more vaccines, we will start offering the vaccine to Group 1B as supply allows," Tarrytown Pharmacy Pharmacist-in-Charge Dr. Rannon Ching wrote in an email to Austonia. "We still have quite a lot of folks in 1A, but we do want to start taking care of 1B as soon as we can."
Only two facilities—Austin State Hospital and the Family Wellness Clinic at the University of Texas at Austin School of Nursing—are administering vaccines to individuals in Group 1B, out of more than 40 that Austonia reached out to or otherwise confirmed.
The first COVID-19 vaccines were distributed in Texas the week of Dec. 14. Gov. Greg Abbott said 1.4 million residents would receive their first dose by the end of the year.
Although vaccines continue to be distributed to facilities around the state, there have been myriad issues with the rollout, including mixed messages from health officials and data delays, and the number of Texans vaccinated falls far short of the stated goal.
Texas Department of State Health Services Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt raised concerns of "unnecessary delays in administering all allocated vaccines and reporting those administered doses to the state's immunization registry" in a Dec. 23 memo.
As a result, he directed facilities that had received COVID vaccines to expand access to 1B individuals once all willing members of Group 1A had been vaccinated.
Less than a week later, DSHS mandated that providers "immediately vaccinate" members of both groups and directed eligible residents to call their providers to sign up for their shots.
This was confusing for clinics such as Marroquin's. With no clear guidance from the state, staff did not know whether to reserve some of their vaccine supply to ensure they would be able to administer the second dose or administer everything and hope for another allocation.
It also led to the influx of callers—in Austin and around the state—who were being told by state officials that vaccines were going unused but couldn't make an appointment at their local doctor's office.
State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, tweeted on Dec. 30 that the roll-out was impacted by a number of challenges, including delayed reports of how many vaccines had been administered, which led to a "false impression" that more doses were available or otherwise uncommitted.
What I think I know after a full day of non-stop meetings with state agencies and pharmacies about COVID vaccine distribution. #txlege 1/— Donna Howard (@Donna Howard)1609374917.0
The DSHS vaccine dashboard currently reports that 17,741 Travis County residents have received the COVID vaccine, out of 41,925 doses that have been distributed. Statewide, 377,050 people have been vaccinated—or just over a fourth of what the governor promised.
These numbers are likely an undercount because of the aforementioned reporting delays.
"I'll tell you that the state's reporting data on vaccines is way, way off," Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said at a Dec. 30 press conference.
But he also admitted that the state had not yet distributed enough doses locally to cover all of the individuals in both groups.
Austin Public Health estimates there are about 80,000 individuals in the 1A group, or nearly twice the number of doses distributed in Travis County so far, plus an additional 205,000 in 1B.
Still, Escott remains optimistic. He expects "a significant portion, if not all" members of groups 1A and 1B who wish to be vaccinated will receive their first dose by the end of February.
"Once we can cover the 1B group, that covers the vast majority of individuals who are going to have a severe illness or death from COVID-19," he said.
This confusion, however, may have lasting consequences.
Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion joined three other Black elected officials representing Central Texas in raising concerns about the "troubling roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines" and how it has deepened inequities in the state's pandemic response.
"Generations of disinvestment and underdevelopment in the Eastern Crescent led to the lack of grocery stores, pharmacies and clinics (able to distribute vaccines)," they wrote in a statement issued Monday. "This is a major concern given that the Black and Latino communities within the Crescent are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and have seen disproportionately higher rates of death due to the illness."
On Monday, Marroquin and his colleagues had trouble reaching patients, which some suspected was due to the flood of incoming calls from vaccine seekers.
"There's like a frenzy out there," he said.
Updated 4:45 p.m. to include a response from the Austin State Hospital.
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In May, Circuit of the Americas chairman Bobby Epstein looked back on 10 years of Formula 1's U.S. Grand Prix at COTA confident that the race would be here to stay in Texas. But sources tell Austonia that securing another contract may be in jeopardy.
Some insiders worry that COTA's 2021 Grand Prix race might be its last.
The multi-day fest from Oct. 22-24 will include a 56-lap race over the 3.3-mile track, food and musical performances from two acts, including Billy Joel at COTA's 1,500-acre facility in Southeast Austin. But after this year, the U.S.' first F1-specific track could lose its headline event.
The facility's inability to secure a contract thus far comes down to the Texas Legislature, a new threat in Miami, and, most importantly, money.
The first F 1 race will take place in Miami next year. (Hard Rock Stadium)
Every year, Formula 1 receives roughly $25 million from Texas' Major Events Reimbursement Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative that helps bring big sporting events like 2017's Houston Super Bowl to the state. A 2019 report by the Reimbursements Program on that year's race said the "data is inconclusive" on if the event has a positive or negative economic impact on the state with the resources given. In 2018, the Austin-American Statesman reported that COTA had brought back a total of $75.7 million between 2015 and 2017 for hosting the U.S. Grand Prix.
Legal issues have also barred Epstein and Co. from securing another 10-year contract earlier: in 2018, the company lost its yearly $25 million bid after failing to submit a human trafficking prevention plan as part of its yearly application.
That same year, F1 managing director of commercial operations Sean Bratches told the Associated Press that the organization hopes to stay at COTA "for many years to come."
However, in May, the racing league announced that it had secured a 10-year contract to hold the Miami Grand Prix as American interest in the sport soared following the three-season "Drive to Survive" documentary, which gives behind-the-scenes looks at drivers and races of the Formula One World Championship.
Epstein is optimistic about the new U.S. location and told Autoweek in May that "more race in our time zones are good for the sport."
"I think we're getting double the impact this way," Epstein said. "Miami should sell out huge the first year and maybe the second year and then after that, I think we'd be spitting audience if we were around the same time on the calendar. So the spread is fantastic."
Bobby Epstein recognizes the 1 millionth customer of COTA in 2013. (COTA/Facebook)
The new F1 venture may impact COTA's contract, however: in an opinion piece for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, writer Mac Engel said Texas is unlikely to fork over taxpayer money if the facility is no longer the only F1 track in the U.S.
According to Engel, the Major Events Reimbursements Program agrees to provide funding only "if Austin holds the only F1 race in the country."
Epstein hasn't addressed such claims; by contrast, he feels as though there's room for a third race in the U.S. as ticket sales rebound after COVID.
"In the first week, we sold pretty much all the tickets we put up for sale and we plan to break the 2019 attendance record," Epstein told Autoweek. "Texas was the first place to lift COVID-19 restrictions (in the U.S.) and put on sporting events, and we're full. We're at 100% capacity.
Despite ventures to diversify revenue at COTA—Epstein's USL soccer team Austin Bold has seen its own share of troubles, and the facility plans to develop into a multi-faceted entertainment arena complete with music venues, a waterpark, condominiums and an 11-story hotel—a loss of its primary event could be devastating for the $300 million complex.
F1 has rarely lasted more than a decade at venues in the U.S. over the last century; let's hope Austin breaks that curse.
COTA's media relations team did not immediately get back to Austonia for comment.
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Houston? Dallas? San Antonio? No, it has to be Austin.
We know Californians love Texas, but a recent string of posts on neighborhood platform Nextdoor in Santa Barbara, California, displays what the craze to move to Austin looks like.
When one user posted, "Hi neighbors, I want to buy a house in Houston, Texas any recommendations?" the responses flooded in displaying what the admiration for Austin looks like from the West Coast. Users mostly advised against a move to Houston; one person even wrote, "Austin is the ONLY place to consider!!"
While some defended H-town, saying, "Awesome place to live," one person wrote, "WORST PLACE TO LIVE." Reasons to not move to Houston from Californians' perspective included:
- "Foul air from refineries"
- "horrible flooding due to the flat Gulf coastal shelf"
- "crazy zoning"
- "racial prejudice"
- "super high humidity"
- "very conservative"
The comments were shifted to Austin's lush greenery, weather and acceptance of gay people.
Over the last five years, Austin has seen more migrants from California than any other state, according to an Austin Chamber of Commerce report. The Austin appeal from residents living in more congested places like California became more prevalent during the pandemic when stay-at-home orders were issued and people sought more space.
It wasn't just Austin though; lots of other Sunbelt cities saw an influx in their housing market as a result of people working from home and looking for a lower cost of living. And that included Texas in general, with people flooding to various Texas cities.
But it hasn't come with resistance. The "Don't California my Texas" pleas are still alive and well, as Californians are blamed for raising the cost of living by outpricing current residents. The housing market has reached record numbers in the median home price year-over-year since the beginning of the pandemic. Austin was even predicted to be the most expensive city outside of California by the end of the year.
Still, Californians and even New Yorkers can't stay away. Companies and celebrities have followed, leading Texas transplant Elon Musk to label Austin's future as "the biggest boomtown that America has seen in half a century."