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Vaccine frenzy: Surging waitlists, concert ticket-style protocols frustrate Austinites seeking shots
Austin health coach Jessica Clay has been trying to help an elderly friend find a COVID-19 vaccine—spending hours checking vaccine websites, logging in and refreshing the pages—in hopes that an appointment slot will open up.
She said she's well aware that once portals open up for appointment slots—such as Hill Country Memorial Hospital's Jan. 25 noon registration portal— they are full within minutes. With an appointment finally scheduled this week, Clay told her friend "she feels like she won the lottery."
Clay's experience with the area's COVID-19 vaccine frenzy isn't an isolated one.
The Texas Department of State Health Services has been in charge of distributing the first phase of vaccines that includes healthcare workers and nursing home residents in 1A, as well as the 65-and-older community and those with chronic or serious illnesses in 1B. The vaccines are sent to larger hubs, such as local public health departments, and smaller distributors such as pharmacies to inoculate qualifying individuals per state guidelines.
Medic DJ Longoria organizes medical supplies to administer the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine to healthcare workers at the AISD Performing Arts Center on Jan. 14. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
And, that's where the fun begins.
A Hays County spokesperson likened the distribution practice to "trying to get concert tickets," with tens of thousands of people who think they qualify under 1B vying for a small number of available vaccine appointments. The county posted 1,950 appointments for each of the past three weeks and she said the online appointments for its Jan. 25 clinic filled up within 25 minutes of the portal's opening.
Travis County's vaccine hubs are coordinated by Austin Public Health via its online or phone sign-up program. Per an APH spokesperson, with about 60,000-70,000 of the total 160,000 pre-registered individuals being 1A or 1B as of Jan. 18, the wait can be frustrating.
APH isn't the only game in town, with other smaller distributors catching the eye of individuals seeking pandemic protection.
Jeffrey Warnken, pharmacist and co-owner of 38th Street Pharmacy, said his business vaccinated healthcare workers and a few 1B individuals with the 200 doses he received Dec. 28. Weeks before news of the pharmacy's first vaccination clinic was posted, residents began calling to get on its waitlist, with staff fielding 100-200 phone calls hourly before the list transitioned to online.
"We're still a pharmacy and we still have patients we have to take care of, getting their routine medicine," Warnken said.
With a 25,000-30,000-person waitlist that includes unvaccinated 1A individuals, he recommends qualified applicants put their name on every COVID-19 vaccine waitlist they can, including nearby counties. However, he cautioned that large vaccination hubs aren't for everyone, especially the elderly who may have to stand in line for hours waiting for a shot, with independent pharmacies, such as 38th Street, able to get vaccine recipients in and out within 25 minutes.
"We aren't all big like CVS and Walgreens, but we are capable and loyal to our patients, and ready to get this done," agreed pharmacist Dorinda Martin who, with husband Jim Martin, co-owns three Martin's Compounding and Wellness pharmacies. Two of those facilities have already distributed 200 doses of the vaccine to healthcare workers and long term care residents.
Martin said she expects to get second doses for those vaccine recipients next week "but there is no guarantee of anything" and they've been ordered for quite some time. As of Jan. 26, the group's waitlist had 25,000 names, and Martin said her emotions have run the gamut from excitement to frustration to impatience over the process.
Central Texans line up at a drive-through clinic for COVID-19 vaccines at Kelly Athletic Stadium in Round Rock. (Bob Daemmrich)
Tarrytown Pharmacy distributed the first and second rounds of the 500 doses it initially received Dec. 23, said Pharmacist-in-Charge Rannon Ching, with most of those vaccines going to healthcare workers, staff and nursing home residents. He said he squeezed out about 20 additional doses after drawing 11 doses from some vials instead of 10 doses, with those going to a few 1B individuals.
Auro Pharmacy owner Sovit Bista said he received 100 doses during the first week of January but, as with Ching, was able to eke out another 10 doses from the vials, inoculating 110 nurses, dental staff and cancer or chronic disease patients. He's got a long way to go to whittle down his 3,000-plus vaccine pre-registration list and so does Ching, with a waitlist that's upwards of 40,000-50,000 individuals.
Mirroring Warnken's words, Ching said, "My advice to people is wherever you can get a shot, go get one."
Heeding that suggestion, West Austin resident Joan Skerry, who is over 65 years old, received a COVID-19 vaccine in early January from independent provider First Medical Response that was conducting a pop-up clinic stationed in the parking lot of the Dripping Springs Fire Department.
The First Medical Response Trailer in the parking lot of the Oak Hill Goodwill store on Jan 15. (Jordan Vonderhaar)
Seventy-year-old Spicewood resident Carol Birsa may trek to Houston to get hers. Helped by daughter Jennifer Gabriel in Florida, Birsa is frustrated despite being listed on up to 20 vaccine pre-registration lists, measures that Gabriel calls "a dead end." Others are garnering support and information on social media sites including Nextdoor portals.
"There doesn't seem to be one central source," Gabriel said. "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."
Providers, such as Family Hospital Systems, Williamson County's sole designated hub for COVID-19 distribution, said they are working to improve the process, especially when it comes to reining in unqualified applicants who can sometimes take doses that should belong to those in the priority distribution phases.
The group held 1A/1B vaccine clinics in Cedar Park and Georgetown earlier this month, administering an average total of about 3,300-3,500 shots daily for six days, Director of Communications Jen Stratton said. Family Hospital System's waitlist tops 100,000 names and she said folks showed up at the Cedar Park site at 8:30 p.m. requesting extra doses. She said she couldn't confirm or deny that non-appointment individuals received vaccines at the clinic and the group is employing measures to ensure that groups 1A and 1B are served first.
"Our goal at Family Hospital Systems, per directive of the Department of State Health Services, is to ensure that no vaccine doses get wasted," Stratton said. "We are doing the very best that we can with the supply that we are given."
Most distribution providers are optimistic the program will eventually improve.
"Take a step back, be patient and we will get as many people vaccinated as possible in the soonest time possible," a Hays County spokesperson said. "It's going to take time and it will evolve."
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Editor's note: Addie Broyles is a longtime food writer, who wrote for the Austin American-Statesman for 13 years. This piece was published in her weekly newsletter, "The Feminist Kitchen," where she shares stories about parenthood, grief, ancestry, self healing and creativity. Check it out here.
You know Bruce McCandless' most famous moment, but you probably don't know his name.
McCandless is the astronaut who, in 1984, became the first untethered astronaut in space. He's the guy on those posters, mugs, shirts and everything else NASA could sell with the image of his "leisurely waltz with eternity," as his son calls it in his new book, "Wonders All Around: The Incredible True Story of Astronaut Bruce McCandless II and the First Untethered Flight in Space."
'Wonders All Around' is a new book by Austinite Bruce McCandless III about his dad, the astronaut Bruce McCandless II. (Bruce McCandless III)
I met McCandless III, who lives in Austin with his wife Pati, for a coffee a few months ago, thanks to the introduction from a mutual friend. As we talked about losing our dads, being writers and parents and living in Austin while still dealing with COVID, his dad's famous flight didn't come up, but the process of writing such an epic biography of a complex, only recently passed man was something worth unpacking over coffee.
I hadn't read the book yet, but over the next few weeks, I got to know the McCandless family in such a sweet way that I wanted to write a little about the book here to perhaps inspire you to seek out a copy of "Wonders All Around."
As much as this is a book about space, it's also a book about grief. And persistence. And stoicism. And masculinity and maternality.
The elder McCandless died in 2017, just a few years after losing his wife, Bernice, to cancer.
This passing of the torch from father to son left the younger McCandless inspired to take on this decades-long narrative. McCandless III sets the tone for the book with a memory of the family sitting around the dinner table at their home outside Johnson Space Center near Houston in the mid 1970s, when his dad, who joined NASA in 1966 at the age of 28, wasn't sure he'd ever actually make it to space.
"Our dinners were somber affairs. We ate around a rectangular Formica table in the breakfast nook. Tracy and I sat on benches padded with orange vinyl cushions. Mom and Dad occupied faux-Spanish style chairs with green felt upholstery. Despite the informal, Howard Johnson's-at-the-airport feel of the furnishings, there was a tension in the air that set in right around the time the frozen string beans started steaming. I had the feeling that my sister and I had forgotten to do something important, though I couldn't figure out what it was, or that judgment had been rendered on us and we'd been found guilty of … something — again, it was unclear what. Horseplay was prohibited. The TV and all sources of music or other frivolity were turned off, and singing was strictly forbidden. The only sound came from the aquarium pump. My father had a 100-gallon tank along the wall behind his chair. Sometimes the big plecostomus would attach itself by its mouth to the glass facing us, and I imagined it sucking all the oxygen out of the room."
Imagining what it must have been like to require oxygen to survive, not in outer space but in the living room with your family, sets up the story of the McCandless ancestors, including a guy who was killed by Wild Bill Hickok and the author's grandfather, who was an admiral in the U.S. Navy.
No pressure, Bruce.
It was fascinating to read about the 18 years that Bruce McCandless II worked for NASA before he finally had his first flight, which debuted the Manned Maneuvering Unit, a jet-fueled backpack that he and Ed Whitsett Jr. spent so many years developing. (That's the joystick-controlled machine he's wearing in that mind-bending poster that hung on millions of Americans' walls over the following decade.)
The author McCandless has the unenviable task of trying to put into words what that flight must have felt like. His dad flew 150 feet away from the shuttle Challenger, which would, of course, break into a million little pieces just a few years later.
When President Reagan called the shuttle to congratulate the astronauts that day in 1984, the command center set up a demonstration space walk to give the president a live view of McCandless through the shuttle window.
Bruce McCandless II, trains with Kathy Sullivan, right, in preparation to launch the Hubble Space Telescope. (NASA)
The only problem was, there wasn't much fuel left. McCandless went out anyway, trying to stay within 10-15 feet of the spacecraft. He got into position and turned off the unit to preserve propellant. After the president said a few words and the video switched off, McCandless turned on the unit and "looked for the closest piece of the orbiter, pointed at it, put the hand controller in +X (and) got a sort of sighing noise as it accelerated in that direction." He ran out of fuel just as he grabbed onto a rail on the orbiter. Hand over hand, he brought himself back to the donning station.
It's that kind of suspense that made this book so thrilling to read.
There's space tension like when McCandless is operating as CAPCOM, the only person talking to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin while they are walking on the surface of the moon, and his commander wants him to break protocol and call them back early, even though there are no signs of distress.
The book is also so touching. I cried while reading about the declining health of Bernice, who survived so many astronaut wife struggles over the years and at the end of her life remained a loving partner and mother.
Bruce McCandless was a Navy pilot who was picked to join NASA in 1966. His first space flight wasn't until 1984. (NASA)
It's easy to forget that McCandless II had an entirely other memorable historic moment—launching the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990—and this one seems to have struck an even deeper chord with McCandless III.
The Hubble launch was McCandless' second and final flight. He was 52 and had worked at NASA for 24 years.
McCandless II spends the last chapters of the book making a compelling case that his dad's work to fix and update the Hubble are among the greatest achievements to science. He continued to work on Hubble for another two decades after retiring from NASA through his work at Lockheed Martin.
Bruce McCandless, left, and the flight crew that launched the Hubble Space Telescope in 1990. He was 52 years old. (NASA)
He was the "nuts, bolts, screws, and wires guy," the auto mechanic rather than the scientist, who kept the telescope going 340 miles above Earth for more than twice its life expectancy. The Hubble has been cited in more than 18,000 scientific papers and has revealed countless secrets and unsolved mysteries from around the universe and beyond.
"The size, shape, and sheer spectral weirdness of the images boggle the imagination and make prophets and dreamers of us all," McCandless writes toward the end of "Wonders All Around. "Some of us pay therapists to tell us we're important and unique. Then we check in with Hubble so the satellite can inform us just how galactically marginal we all are. The truth is somewhere in the middle."
What a beautiful reminder.
Austin FC looked to go 2-0 against the Colorado Rapids in their first-rematch since their breakthrough 3-1 victory in April. Instead, the club tallied yet another scoreless match at home as they lost 1-0 to the fourth-place team in the West.
Austin now sits at the bottom of the Western Conference for the second week in a row and have been shutout for 9 of their last 11 matches.
At first glance, Austin looked to have a fighting chance as they took the pitch with their healthiest lineup in weeks. With just four players on the bench and a late-game surprise appearance by left back Nick Lima, who now sports a mohawk, the club had potential to break a 225+ minute scoreless streak and notch their first back-to-back wins against a team.
Instead, the club started fast but finished slow. Austin tallied just two shots on goal to Colorado's 6 as the team continued to struggle to find an offensive identity.
Colorado's Andre Shinyashiki got past even goalkeeper Brad Stuver in the 29th minute of play to give the away team the lead. Austin was unable to bounce back in the match.
There's hope on the horizon, however: Austin's three new signees, including $6.4m striker Sebastian Driussi, are projected to join the team next week.
It's all about the Lone Star State for Austin FC next week as they compete against Texas teams Houston Dynamo at home on Wednesday and FC Dallas on the road on Saturday.
79' Nick Lima is back!
Nick Lima back at RB for the first time in weeks! https://t.co/eln9IFyoMB— Claire (@partain_claire) August 1, 2021
For the first time since a tumultuous June 24 match, right back Nick Lima is back on the pitch- this time with a new look. The defender subbed in for left back Zan Kolmanic sporting a new mohawk haircut in the 79th minute of play.
STUUUUUUUU 🗣 pic.twitter.com/tRRyGxTooK— Austin FC (@AustinFC) August 1, 2021
Brad Stuver gets the crowd yelling his name after blocking Rapids star Michael Barrios' shot with a solo save. Just after, Stuver gets his fingertips on another Barrios ball just in time to get it off track and out of the way. Either save could get Stuver on the MLS highlight reel for today's match.
40' Redes' run for goal is stymied
Redes gets his closest look of the game as he reaches the nearly-unmanned goal, but he takes a tumble just before he strikes. A ref decision says no penalty kick will be allowed, and Redes slowly rises back up with a bit of a limp.
Austin still hasn't managed to tie it up, but Cap. Alex Ring came close in the 36th minute with a header that flew just a bit too high.
29' Colorado strikes first
Austin has been near goal more often than any match in recent weeks, but it's Colorado's Andre Shinyashiki who scores first at Q2 Stadium. Austin's two defensive strongholds Matt Besler and Julio Cascante can't react quickly enough to break his stride as Shinyashiki wins over a 1v1 battle with Brad Stuver. Colorado leads for the first time in the two teams' history.
Perez gets first start for Austin
No new signees on the pitch tonight. Head coach Josh Wolff is mostly sticking to what he knows, with Manny Perez and Rodney Redes being the exception. Redes started last week against Seattle for the first time in weeks after scoring in a friendly vs. Tigres UANL of Liga MX, while Perez will have his first start with Austin tonight.
Will recent signees play tonight?
The club has stirred up new hope by signing Argentine Sebastian Driussi with their most expensive contract yet a month after another striker signing in Moussa Djitte. Austin also welcomed their first true hometown player just a day later as they signed Austinite McKinze Gaines.
Austin FC hopes to answer their scoring woes with the three players as they head into potential rivalry matches against fellow Texas teams Houston Dynamo and FC Dallas, but they might not hold any merit for Saturday's Colorado rematch. Djitte is MIA after receiving a contract in late June, and Driussi is still waiting for the go-ahead to play as he watches the match in Austin. Gaines may not have to travel far to play with the team, but it'll still be at least a few more days before he plays in front of his hometown crowd.
While all three signees aren't on tonight's roster, there's still plenty of buzz that could drum up more excitement on and off the pitch.
La Murga marches to McKalla
Austin FC fan band La Murga de Austin teamed up with supporters' groups Los Verdes and Austin Anthem as hundreds marched to Q2 Stadium two hours before the match. Hundreds of fans filed in, home opener style, to celebrate the upcoming match with brass, bass drums and plenty of fanfare.
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