Tucker Bradley, 69, lives in the North Loop neighborhood of Austin and would "absolutely" drive a few hours if it meant getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
"I've registered in Houston, Bastrop, Round Rock and every place I can find in Austin," she told Austonia.
Because of her age and medical history, Bradley qualifies as a member of the 1B priority group. But a statewide shortage of vaccines means that she is still waiting for an appointment.
When the vaccine rollout began in mid-December, Bradley started seeing her Houston friends posting on Facebook about securing a vaccine appointment. "They just lucked into getting them," she said. "But it's not like that here."
Although social media posts may have indicated otherwise, Bradley and other would-be vaccine tourists are likely to face the same predicament wherever they look in Texas.
As of Sunday, 75,178 Travis County residents have received at least the first dose of the COVID vaccine. This accounts for around 7.1% of individuals who are 16 years of age or older, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. The proportion of vaccinated residents is around the same across Texas: In Harris County, around 7.5% of the eligible population has received at least one shot; in Williamson County, 6.3%; in Hays, 6.5%.
"I missed out on Houston," Bradley said. "I think they're having trouble getting it now too."
Although Austinites may find similarly long waitlists and filled appointment slots outside of Travis County, some people have found vaccine appointments far from home.
Houston Methodist, a vaccine hub in Harris County, administered vaccines to a few dozen people originally from Mexico, according to a KPRC report. The local news channel also spoke to a doctor in Mexico City who said foreign nationals had flown into big cities, such as Houston and Miami, in search of a vaccine.
Following reports that some out-of-state residents, including snowbirds and wealthy Argentines, had received vaccines in Florida, State Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees issued a public health advisory mandating that vaccines only be administered to state residents.
No such mandate has been implemented in Texas.
DSHS, which is in charge of the vaccine rollout in Texas, does not require residents to get vaccinated in their county of residence. Although vaccines have been administered to residents of all 254 counties in the state, only about one in five counties has at least one designated hub provider.
Austin Public Health, one of two designated hub providers in Travis County, has no residency requirement for its vaccine allotments. "Anyone can receive a vaccine at any location … in the state of Texas," APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said during a press conference last month. "We do caution folks that it would probably be easier for you to go to a testing site in your community … However, there is no residency that you need to prove."
Such flexibility has not led to widened access. Instead, Austinites are stuck in a kind of limbo, registered to multiple waitlists from North Austin to Harris County but still waiting for an appointment.
Carol Birsa, a 70-year-old Spicewood resident, is on more than a dozen vaccine waitlists, thanks to some help from her daughter Jennifer Gabriel. But both remain frustrated by the process. "There doesn't seem to be one central source," Gabriel recently told Austonia. "You can't sign up with one place and they get to you on the list. There doesn't seem to be anything like that happening."
Another potential snag is how vaccine tourists will arrange for their second dose. Both Pfizer and Moderna's COVID vaccines require a booster shot three to four weeks after the initial dose. Travis County residents who traveled to another jurisdiction for their first vaccination will not be eligible for a second dose through APH, local public health officials said during a press conference Tuesday.
A universal problem
Counties all over Texas, and the country, are facing the same fundamental problem: too many eligible residents and two few doses.
When the vaccine rollout began in mid-December, Texas officials limited access to frontline healthcare workers and nursing home residents. By Dec. 23, however, DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt raised concerns of "unnecessary delays in administering all allocated vaccines" and directed providers to expand access to the next priority groups, including people 65 years of age and older and those with a chronic medical condition.
This quickly created a bottleneck. More than half of the Travis County population qualified as a member of these priority groups, but the state's weekly allocation of vaccines only accounts for a sliver—around 2.6% of them. Two months into the rollout, fewer than a quarter of eligible residents in Travis County have received the initial dose.
Local and state elected officials are well aware of the frustration this has caused.
Austinites wait to receive the COVID vaccine at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Jan 14. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
"Too many Texans are spending long days physically standing in line, calling a phone number repeatedly, and spending hours online, trying in vain to get a vaccination appointment," Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick wrote in a Jan. 21 letter to the state's Expert Vaccination Allocation Panel. "Demand clearly outstrips supply."
Patrick urged the panel to create subgroups for prioritization, such as limiting access to people 75 years and older, until the vaccine supply increases.
Although such an age cutoff might mean a longer wait for Bradley, it would address the sense of uncertainty—and unfairness—she feels is inherent to the current process.
"I would just like it to be more straight-forward," Bradley said of the rollout. "It sort of teases you to think that there are vaccines that aren't there."
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The Austin woman suspected of killing star cyclist visiting from out of town, Moriah "Mo" Wilson, has now been captured after evading arrest for more than a month.
Kaitlin Marie Armstrong, an Austin yoga instructor, is believed by officials to be the killer of Wilson, who was found with gunshot wounds in a friend's house on May 11. The murder is being investigated as a crime of passion after Wilson met up with Armstrong's ex-boyfriend.
According to the U.S. Marshals, Armstrong was located at a hostel on Santa Teresa Beach in Provincia de Puntarenas, Costa Rica. Officials said she may have been using her sister's name after fleeing Austin on May 14, the day after police questioned her. She was last identified at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 18.
Federal authorities say they plan on returning Armstrong to the U.S., where she'll face charges of murder and unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
Here's a timeline of events since the night of Wilson's murder.
- The night of her death, Wilson met with Armstrong’s ex-boyfriend Colin Strickland, a fellow pro cyclist. According to an affidavit, the pair went swimming, then to dinner, before he dropped Wilson off at her friend's home where she was staying in East Austin at around 8:30 p.m.
- While Wilson and Stickland had previously had a romantic relationship, Stickland said the two were friends. The affidavit says Strickland lied to Armstrong about his whereabouts that evening.
- Video footage shows Armstrong’s Jeep pulled up nearby the home within a minute of Wilson arriving home.
- At around 10 p.m., Wilson's friend called Austin police after finding her in a pool of blood. Wilson had been staying with the friend ahead of the upcoming bike race in nearby Hico, Texas.
- Armstrong was brought in for questioning the day after the murder and released after appearing “very still and guarded” when confronted with video evidence.
- The Lone Star Fugitive Task Force said her black Jeep Cherokee was sold to a South Austin CarMax dealership on May 13 for $12,200.
- She leaves from the Austin airport on May 14.
- Shell casings found on the scene matched a gun belonging to Armstrong.
- Austin police obtained an arrest warrant for Armstrong on May 17.
- She took a flight from Newark Liberty International Airport to San Jose, Costa Rica on May 18 using a fraudulent passport, according to the Marshals.
- On May 25, another warrant was obtained for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution.
- On June 29, she was captured by the U.S. Marshals
On Thursday, the Supreme Court limited the Environmental Protection Agency’s authority in regulating greenhouse gases, a move that comes at a time when experts have warned about the need to take action on climate change.
The ruling was brought after a challenge to a lower court opinion brought by Texas and more than a dozen other states.
Vaibhav Bahadur, an associate professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin called the SCOTUS decision significant, noting that Texas is the biggest energy producer in the U.S., and produces more energy than the United Kingdom.
“Power generation accounts for a significant fraction of U.S. carbon emissions, and the EPA loses its ability to control what's happening in about half of that sector,” Bahadur said. “And it's not just the U.S., I think people and environmentalists on pretty much anywhere on the planet will be disappointed because this is going in the wrong direction. We know we want to be decarbonizing, and this is essentially putting a roadblock on progress toward decarbonization.”
So, we’re going to need some insurance, Bahadur says. He’s carrying out work that’ll act as such through his research on carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), the process of sucking carbon from the air and burying it.
For the past five years, he’s been working on a novel approach to storing carbon. It involves supercharging the formation of carbon dioxide-based crystal structures and storing billions of tons of carbon under the ocean floor.
“If all of this is successful, then we will have another option for safely and responsibly storing carbon at the bottom of the seabed for essentially eternity,” Bahadur said.
Still, Bahadur talked about a different approach to responsibly cutting down emissions in the next decade, and doing so in a meaningful and substantial way, then the environment will eventually heal itself and we might not need CCS.
But that’s not the path we’re headed down.
“We're already starting to see temperature records being shattered this year, and we're still to hit peak summer,” Bahadur said. “All of this just makes me think that we need CCS to a larger extent, and possibly sooner than what a lot of scientists anticipate, especially if we can't keep our emissions in check.”
Gary Rochelle, a professor in the department of chemical engineering at UT, thinks CCS was ready to be deployed in 2010 and those 12 years have made a difference.
“But now we've emitted all that CO2,” Rochelle said. “And unfortunately, unlike other pollutants, when you emit CO2, it's there. It's not going away.”
Gary Rochelle and Vaibhav Bahadur are both researching technology to address carbon emissions. (UT)
Still, the delay is good in that now researchers like him have had time to learn about and improve the technology, allowing for fewer problems once it's deployed.
In December, UT announced a licensing agreement with advanced technology company Honeywell. The technology from that is targeted at power, steel, cement and other industrial plants to lower emissions.
Rochelle has been working on the technology since 2000 as part of an international collaborative effort. When he talked to Austonia on Thursday, he had just had calls with collaborators in Germany and Norway. Currently, he’s working with some Ph.D. students on addressing a chemical reaction that can happen with the technology known as oxidation that could lead to ammonia emissions and cause problems for a large-scale commercial unit.
Rochelle says he’s driven to this work because he wants to make a contribution.
“We're trying to develop this technology so that we can make a difference,” Rochelle said. “It's a nice problem to work on. The students are motivated and those are the primary things which drive us.”
Meanwhile, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott celebrated the high court’s decision which acted as a blow to President Joe Biden’s plan to reduce emissions.
“Today’s landmark victory against an out-of-control administration is also a big win for Americans who worry about skyrocketing energy costs due to expensive federal regulations that threaten our energy industry,” Abbott said. “President Biden cannot keep attacking the energy industry and the hardworking men and women who power our nation.”
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