Your daily dose of Austin
Smartphone image
Make your inbox more Austin.
Local news and fun, every day 6am.
Austinites are willing to travel for a COVID-19 vaccine—but it's not that easy
Central Texans line up at a drive-through clinic for COVID-19 vaccines at Kelly Athletic Stadium in Round Rock. (Bob Daemmrich)

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."

Vaccine tourists

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."


Kaitlin Armstrong, suspect in Moriah Wilson murder, captured in Costa Rica after more than a month on the run

(U.S. Marshals)

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.

Keep ReadingShow less
As the EPA faces limits on greenhouse gas regulations, Texas researchers work on carbon capture tech

UT is developing technology targeted at power, steel, cement and other industrial plants to lower emissions. (UT Austin)

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.

Keep ReadingShow less