Texas changes vaccine rollout strategy as Austin providers run out of vaccine supply, waitlists grow longer
Nanci Kahn, 64, lives in Hyde Park and works as a registered nurse for a small company. She managed to get herself a vaccine appointment at Austin Regional Clinic after waiting on the phone for an hour. But her husband, who is in group 1B, remains on three waitlists. "He's number 3,000 at one place," Kahn told Austonia. "He's 600 at another."
Jim Duncan, 82, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and atrial fibrillation. He also has eight doctors, none of whom are administering vaccines. As a result, he hasn't been able to get an appointment elsewhere. Although he is "perfectly happy to ensconce himself at home" and agrees with the prioritization of healthcare workers and nursing home residents, he is frustrated.
"It's so critical to have our act together in this, and it doesn't seem like we do," he said.
The Texas Department of State Health Services announced Thursday that it would primarily direct its upcoming weekly allocation of around 200,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to large providers to establish distribution hubs. As part of this allocation, Austin Public Health will receive 12,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine—the only shipment arriving in Travis County this week.
Previously, DSHS had distributed smaller allocations of the vaccine to a more diverse group of providers, including area hospitals, private practices, community clinics and pharmacies. Many of these facilities are running out of their existing supply, if they have any doses left, and are waiting to hear from the state when they can expect more.
This shift in strategy arrives amid a bumpy rollout. Gov. Greg Abbott said 1.4 million Texans would be vaccinated by the end of 2020; so far, fewer than 800,000 doses have been administered, according to DSHS. In Travis County, 31,044 residents have received their first dose and an additional 3,131 have received the second. Additionally, some providers have administered vaccines to non-priority individuals, and many eligible residents have found themselves on waitlists numbering into the thousands.
Austin Public Health
APH is a safety net provider and has said it will focus its vaccine distribution efforts on eligible members of the area's vulnerable populations. The department has identified vaccine clinic locations in the hardest hit communities and plans to launch a registration system for individuals who meet the state's criteria for groups 1A and 1B, which include:
- Frontline healthcare workers
- Long-term care facility residents
- First responders
- People 65 years of age and older
- People with 16 years of age and older with a chronic medical condition
But APH Director Stephanie Hayden stressed that the vaccine supply remains very limited. "There is an estimated 200,000 residents without traditional health insurance over the age of 16 that may need to be vaccinated by a safety net provider like Austin Public Health," she said in a statement Friday.
APH received 1,300 doses from the state during the first four weeks of the vaccine allocation process.
Regional hospital systems
Baylor Scott & White Health, which is one of three hospital systems in the Austin metro, is continuing to focus its vaccine distribution process on healthcare workers, according to a statement shared with Austonia on Monday. Its Travis County locations received 2,000 doses in late December. St. David's HealthCare is similarly focused on healthcare personnel at this stage, according to its website. Ascension Seton has partnered with some area school districts to vaccinate campus-based staff in the 1B group.
Austin Regional Clinic, whose Travis County locations have received 4,100 doses of the vaccine to date, announced it had exhausted its initial shipment of vaccines on Friday. The private medical group has more than 50,000 patients in the 1B group.
Capital Medical Group, a private practice on West 38th Street, received 500 doses in late December. Most of these were administered to healthcare workers at the clinic or in the community, Dr. James Marroquin told Austonia in an email.
The remainder are being administered to select patients over the age of 75, of which the practice has more than 10,000. This "will likely exhaust our current vaccine supply soon," he added. When the practice receives its next allocation, it will use it to give the second shot to patients who have already received their initial dose.
(Providers that have already received vaccine allotments will receive corresponding second doses, DSHS spokesperson Chris Van Deusen confirmed to Austonia.)
Since DSHS' announcement that it will focus its vaccine distribution in the coming weeks on a handful of pharmacies and hospitals, to create vaccine hubs, Capital Medical Clinic has told patients that they will likely receive a vaccine through one of these hubs rather than from their practice. "In general, we're advising our 1b patients to be on the lookout for where they can (get a) vaccine and to get it if they have the opportunity," Marroquin wrote.
But some providers remain optimistic.
Tarrytown Pharmacy, on Exposition Boulevard, received 500 doses on Dec. 23 and was able to administer all of them within days, Pharmacist-in-Charge Dr. Rannon Ching told Austonia.
He is hopeful the pharmacy will receive more doses next week and beyond for two reasons: 1) this is the last week Texas is required to reserve some of its federally allocated doses for long-term care facilities, meaning more doses will be available to distribute in the coming weeks, and 2) Tarrytown is one of a small number of local providers that has the ultra-cold freezer capacity needed to store the Pfizer vaccine, which "would make us a great candidate to receive more."
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It may not come as a surprise that dating app use surged during the pandemic when many had to swap the benefits of in-person dating for on-screen connections. Bumble revenue swelled to $337.2 million in 2020 compared to $275.5 million, Hinge revenue tripled in the same period and Tinder users broke two records from January to March of 2021.
What may be more intriguing, however, is that many apps anticipate more growth into 2022. Hinge expects to double its revenue by the end of 2021, while Tinder has announced several new features to meet new demands in time for what some are calling a "third surge" of COVID-19.
Vaccinated Austinites who had been eager for "Shot Girl Summer"—a season of in-person dating, going out and making up for time lost—may have to get back on the apps, at least partially, as cases rise higher than they've been since February and mask recommendations reenter the picture.
Austin-area resident Chloe Mohr, a 22-year-old recent college graduate, had sometimes used Tinder before the pandemic. While the app wasn't a supplemental replacement for deeper connections during stay-at-home orders, it did help her stay in the dating game and continue meeting new people.
"Using dating apps during the pandemic was easy when wanting something casual or entertaining," Mohr, who now works in marketing, said.
Chloe Mohr turned to Tinder more during the pandemic to stay connected to people. (Chloe Mohr)
Sixty percent of members came to Tinder because they felt lonely and wanted to connect with people, a Tinder study revealed, and chats were 32% longer during the pandemic.
But dating during a pandemic is no walk in the park when there's fear about contracting COVID, Mohr said. She had fears at the beginning
Tinder, Bumble, Hinge and OkCupid have responded to the new dating criteria, adding vaccination badges to profiles in partnership with U.S. and British governments.
In order to meet the demand for a stricter screening process and the superficial nature of swiping, Tinder has also introduced new features that allow users to add videos to their profiles and chat with others before they've even matched.
The new add-ons could be beneficial for the app as interest continues to swell—Google searches for "dating" have hit a five-year high, according to NPR.
But the future of dating could be vastly different—and stay different—even well into the next decade.
According to a Ypulse study, 43% of dating app users said the apps made them feel less lonely in the pandemic. Even post-pandemic, 40% of Tinder users say they plan on video-chatting with their matches before they meet, and being honest, authentic and respecting boundaries have become big talk on the app in the past year.
While it's unclear how the pandemic will shape dating for good, signs show that Austin residents and those nationwide may lean on dating apps once again if social distancing returns to the norm.
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With more research done on the COVID-19 Delta variant, Austin Public Health is upping its goal of 70% vaccinated to at least 80% due to the extreme virality of the strain.
As more Delta cases are identified—up to 29 cases are confirmed in Travis County—health officials are urging the unvaccinated to get their shots to contain the spread and relieve hospitals from reaching full capacity.
Austin-Travis County surpassed the Stage 5 threshold on Friday and has reached a seven-day average of 61 hospital admissions. However, Austin health leaders have yet to make an official shift as the Delta variant calls for new guidance, APH Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said at a joint Travis County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday morning.
The new guidance has yet to be released, but Walkes said it will take into account the viral load of Delta on both unvaccinated and vaccinated people.
Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed the Delta variant was as contagious as chickenpox, which has a herd immunity threshold of at least 90% vaccinated.
Although 63.42% of those eligible in Travis County are fully vaccinated, breakthrough cases—where vaccinated people are contracting COVID-19—are being identified. APH has identified 1,496 breakthrough cases of the roughly 800,000 vaccinated. Most breakthrough cases are showing less severe symptoms or are asymptomatic, according to APH.
Health officials are still asking residents to wear masks, although the city cannot mandate any masking orders due to an executive order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
"Our challenge is going to be whether we're going to stand as a community and everyone who can get vaccinated, get vaccinated, and everyone wear a mask—that's what it's going to take," Walkes said.
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Save Austin Now police petition will reach November ballot after county clerk certifies 25,000 signatures
Save Austin Now is now 2-0 over Austin City Council after its petition to add more staffed police officers to the Austin Police Department was certified, garnering over the 20,000 votes needed to make it on an election ballot.
The petition calls for more police staffing per city resident, quicker response times and more training for city police officers in the wake of increasing violent crime rates nationwide and a year of limited APD staffing. The City Council will now decide whether to implement the ordinance outright or add it to the November election ballot; it will likely do the latter.
Over 25,000 of the 27,778 signatures racked up by the public safety petition were certified as valid, well over the 20,000-vote threshold required to be certified with the City Clerk. City Clerk Jannette Goodall placed the city's seal of approval on the petition on Tuesday morning.
The petition, by the same political group that got the camping ban reinstated through a petition in May, seeks to:
- Require minimum staffing of two officers per 1,000 residents
- Require a minimum standard of 35% community response time
- Add 40 hours of training
- Require city council members, Mayor Steve Adler and other city staff to enroll in the Citizens Police Academy
- Facilitate minority officer hiring through foreign language proficiency metrics
Austin's 160 patrol vacancies have dropped its staffing rate to 1.2 officers per 1,000 residents, according to the department. APD's response time has increased by about one minute and 50 seconds in a year.
The petition comes nearly a year after APD's budgets were slashed by city council following the summer's Black Lives Matter protests, which saw several demonstrators severely injured as millions called for justice in the police-related deaths of George Floyd and locally Mike Ramos, an unarmed Black man killed by APD officer Christopher Taylor, in April 2020.
Austin and the U.S. have experienced a widespread uptick in violent crime rates in 2021. The city has reached 49 homicides in 2021, higher than the total number of murders in all of 2020 and the 38 homicides in the city in 2019. Austin police officers have seen response times rise as the department suffers increased vacancies and fewer newcomers while cadet classes are being readjusted.
Opponents argue the ordinance would ramp up a policing budget while taking away from other departments including Fire, EMS, violence prevention, and mental health care. City Council Member Greg Casar, the Travis County Democratic Party and the Austin Justice Coalition have spoken out against the organization's latest public safety move, calling out the campaign as a "right-wing petition" that misleads those who sign.
🔥 PANTS ON FIRE: Republican-front group Save Austin Now is lying about their petition!
They say their measure is about police reform, when it's really about devastating our city budget - all for the benefit of the police union. Watch the video here ⬇️ #ATX pic.twitter.com/Z6QQSfhHfH
— Gregorio Casar (@GregCasar) August 2, 2021
The latest battle between city council and Save Austin Now will be decided by Austin residents in the Nov. 2 election.
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