Nursing homes and front-line healthcare workers will be the first to receive the COVID vaccine. Will they opt in?
On Thursday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will review an emergency use authorization application from Pfizer regarding its COVID-19 vaccine. If approved, the pharmaceutical company could begin distributing doses as early as next week, with an initial allotment of 13,650 slated for the Austin area.
Long-term care facility residents and staff, front-line healthcare workers and first responders are first in line to receive the vaccine in Austin. Industry representatives welcomed the news but told Austonia that challenges remain, including convincing vaccine skeptics.
At highest risk
Long-term care facilities will be among the first to administer the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state distribution guidelines.
In Travis County, staff and residents at long-term care facilities account for more than 42% of the 495 COVID-19 deaths reported as of Monday.
"This is such a vulnerable population that it's important that we target them first," said Kevin Warren, president and CEO of the Texas Health Care Association, which represents long-term care facility staff.
But there are still logistical challenges to work through.
The federal government announced in October that it had partnered with CVS and Walgreens to distribute COVID vaccines to long-term care facility residents. Many Texas facilities have registered to be a part of this program, Warren said, which will likely involve drug stores setting up inside individual facilities to help get vaccines in arms.
This will likely account for many of the Austin area's initial vaccine allotment as there are 139 long-term care facilities registered in Travis County, with a total of 8,419 residents, according to Texas Health and Human Services.
Another challenge will be convincing skeptical residents and staff who may be unsure of the vaccine.
Patty Ducayet has served as the state's long-term care ombudsman—an independent resident advocacy role—for 15 years. Based on conversations she has had with residents' family members, there is "diversity of opinion" regarding a vaccine.
Some want their loved ones to be first in line to receive the vaccine, given their disproportionate risk of death from the disease.
"(But) there's another side of that coin, which is people being skeptical of this vaccine," she said. "I think we have a bit of a battle ahead of us."
Although the state is still developing its guidance on the topic, Ducayet expects that the vaccine will remain optional for long-term care facility residents, similar to the current flu vaccine protocol. But she hopes residents will opt in.
"I see this as such an important tool for us to move forward and out of this crisis period with very limited visitation and other kinds of restraints on residents' rights," she said.
On the front lines
Outside of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, front-line healthcare workers and first responders will be the first to receive a COVID vaccine.
This is welcome news to a beleaguered workforce.
"Our medics are definitely very, very exhausted," Austin EMS Association President Selena Xie said.
In addition to facing exposure to COVID at work, where they wear multiple layers of personal protective equipment, and worrying about the risk of spreading the virus to their loved ones, Austin medics have also faced staffing issues.
Any time a member of the 500-person force is experiencing COVID symptoms, they are asked to self-quarantine, Xie said. As a result, the department is in emergency staffing mode, which essentially means it is understaffed. This, combined with the other pressures of the job, has led to some medics needing time off for mental health reasons, further straining staffing levels.
So the news of an imminent vaccine has been welcomed. "It definitely takes weight off of our shoulders," she said.
The Austin EMS Association is "anxiously awaiting" more information about how the initial vaccine allotment will be administered, Xie added. "We absolutely want to receive it as soon as possible."
Nurses at hospitals and in other front-line positions feel similarly.
"The level of burnout is pretty high," said Serena Bumpus, director of practice for the Texas Nurses Association.
Although many nurses are ready to be vaccinated, some are skeptical.
As a result, TNA is working to provide educational materials so that those members can make informed decisions based on science. "We're hopeful that the majority will receive the vaccine," Bumpus said.
The educational materials TNA develops may also prove helpful down the line, as the vaccine becomes more widely available to the general public. The optics of front-line healthcare workers choosing to be vaccinated may also prove encouraging.
"If we trust the vaccine, then others will trust it as well," she said.
- COVID-19 scams surface as vaccine prepares for FDA approval ... ›
- UT professor played role in Pfizer and Moderna's COVID vaccines ... ›
- Abbott confirms incoming COVID-19 vaccines by the end of the year ... ›
- Austin Public Health prepares for COVID vaccine distribution ... ›
- Austin area will receive 13,650 doses of Pfizer COVID vaccine ... ›
- 11 Austin sites will receive Pfizer COVID vaccine this week - austonia ›
- Austin's Dell Med receives first shipment of COVID vaccines - austonia ›
- Texas gov promises wider COVID-19 vaccine access - austonia ›
- Freestanding ERs receive COVID vaccine after hospital ERs - austonia ›
- Burnt out? Austin companies offer new employee benefits - austonia ›
Austin parents and grocery store shelves are feeling the effects of a nationwide baby formula shortage.
Caused mostly by a February recall due to contamination issues, followed by the Abbott Nutrition factory closure in Michigan, the shortage has left Austin shelves barren. However, earlier this week, U.S. officials announced a plan with the facility to restart production.
In the meantime, local parents in crisis have turned toward the Mother’s Milk Bank to keep their babies fed.
HEB on East 7th has been picked clean of formula and is limiting purchases. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The milk bank—which takes donations from lactating mothers and dispenses milk to babies in the NICU—has been helping feed upwards of 30 families in need as the formula supply tightens.
According to the bank’s executive director Kim Updegrove, Mother’s Milk Bank has seen an uptick in calls from parents with healthy babies in need of help since the shortage began.
“We aren't used to hearing from families with healthy infants,” Updegrove said. “They're typically very upset, angry, frustrated, sobbing—it's scary to not be able to feed your infants. So in the past few weeks, those calls have been significantly increasing.”
Mothers are only able to donate if they are within a year postpartum, so Updegrove said they are constantly bringing on and retiring donors. While donors had been on a 30% decline leftover from 2021 when the shortage began, Updegrove said the shortage has led to mass community interest and more than 90 prospective donors in just the past few days.
“We and other milk banks are experiencing significant interest from the community—becoming milk donors and helping to turn around this crisis,” Updegrove said. “Every infant needs to be fed, every one of us can relate to that need, and we need to make sure as a community that it happens.”
Whole Foods downtown was also cleaned out of typical formula. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
While you may still be able to find formula at places like Whole Foods—which currently has goat milk, soy and plant-based formula in stock—Updegrove said it might not be what a baby needs.
Updegrove said it is best to buy types that say “infant formula,” as they are FDA approved and will provide the nutrients, vitamins and minerals a baby needs. Plant-based, homemade, non-cow's milk or diluting formula may not provide the same nutritional value.
As the community navigates the shortage, Updegrove said the most important way to help out is to not panic buy or stockpile.
“This is a crisis for families,” Updegrove said. “This is the time for the community to gather together and figure out what everyone can do to help families with young infants.”
Next time you’re sitting at a red light in Austin, you may look over and see a car without a person at the driver’s wheel.
Autonomous vehicle tech company Argo AI has brought driverless operations to Austin and Miami, starting out with only company employees using the service. Later on, tests with Lyft and Walmart will carry out ride-sharing and grocery delivery services, with the help of a human safety operator. The company has already made moves on this front in Miami Beach where some Lyft passengers have used its autonomous vehicles with a human operator.
While its platform is designed for integration with multiple vehicle types, the test fleet uses the Ford Escape Hybrid and VW's all-electric ID.Buzz.
The Pittsburgh-based company says this progress on its autonomy platform has been more than five years in the making and boasted about reaching this milestone before others.
"Argo is first to go driverless in two major American cities, safely operating amongst heavy traffic, pedestrians and bicyclists in the busiest of neighborhoods," said Bryan Salesky, Founder and CEO of Argo AI.
Expect to see the autonomous cars on the road during daytime business hours as the tech aims to learn from a diversity of road infrastructure and driving behaviors.
The company, which is testing in eight cities in the U.S. and Europe, has brought its tech to Austin as the company looks to expand in densely-populated cities. In particular, Argo is looking at ridesharing, delivery and logistics companies for integrating its autonomous vehicles into their digital services.
Argo anticipates its service availability to someday cover more than 15 million people in Austin, Miami and Washington D.C.
- Elon Musk "The Boring Company" tunnel to be built in Austin ... ›
- Austin voters ask: How will Project Connect affect transit ridership ... ›
- Robots become part of everyday Austin life - austonia ›
- Tesla files plans to build batteries at Austin Gigafactory - austonia ›
- Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk is moving to Austin, Texas ... ›
- What would Austin's roads look like if they were built for growth ... ›
- The robots are driving: Argo AI gears up to bring driverless ... ›
- Take a ride in Ford's new electric vehicles in downtown Austin with ... ›
- Austin-based company displays upcoming 'flying car' - austonia ›