Scarce COVID Vaccine for Health Workers on Its Way to Austin

The Austin area should receive 13,650 initial doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week


Austin Public Health's drive-through flu shot event on Nov. 7 at Travis County Expo Center, which served as practice for distributing a future COVID-19 vaccine (Photo by John Anderson)

The Austin area will receive 13,650 initial doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine as early as next week, pending its emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, according to local health officials.

Austin Public Health announced the news last Friday, based on information from the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is working with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to dictate how the vaccine will be distributed to Texans. The FDA could approve the Pfizer vaccine as soon as today, Dec. 10. In all, Texas is set to receive approximately 224,250 doses as part of its first week's vaccine allocation, according to DSHS.

More than 150 providers, including APH, have registered through DSHS to distribute the vaccine in Travis County, but these initial doses will go to only eight providers. Vaccinating front-line hospital workers – who state and federal guidelines dictate will be the first to receive the vaccine – in an effort to preserve Austin's health care infrastructure is APH's primary goal, said Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott. These first doses (two of which are required for each vaccination) won't be enough to protect everybody working in local hospitals, he said; those at the highest risk of exposure in COVID-19 wards, intensive care, and emergency departments are the highest priority. Escott estimates that 50% of those hospital employees will be able to get vaccinated.

Next among APH's priorities is getting the vaccine to those in the community at the highest risk of severe disease and death. Travis County has about 240,000 residents aged 60 and older who are at greater risk; the majority of Austinites who are under 50 and healthy likely will be waiting until the spring or early summer, said Escott. He expressed confidence in the Pfizer vaccine's reported efficacy of 95% for people aged 16 to 55, which he called "much better than anyone expected it to be."

Among Austin's first vaccine distribution sites is UT Health Austin, the clinical practice for UT Dell Medical School, which is set to receive nearly 3,000 doses in this initial shipment, the most of any local provider. Dr. Amy Young, vice dean of professional practice at Dell Med and chief clinical officer for UT Health, said its focus will remain for now with university-affiliated health care providers, whose patients include many low-income Austinites covered by Central Health's Medical Access Program and other subsidized care. In later stages of distribution, UT could consider administering vaccines to others beyond the campus community.

Vaccinations at UT will be voluntary, even for health care workers affiliated with UT Health. Historic­ally, U.S. colleges don't have the authority to mandate vaccinations, though state governments do. In Texas, DSHS requires students to receive the meningitis vaccine before enrolling in college.

"The vaccine is really only one step, one layer, in the way that we hope to protect our campus," said Dr. Terrance Hines, executive director and chief medical officer of University Health Services at UT-Austin, the provider that serves students. "It's also a new vaccine and we're continuing to learn about that, so we're also respectful [that] this is a personal choice for a lot of folks who take it very seriously."

The news comes as Travis County continues its weeks-long increase in COVID numbers. After Thanksgiving, Escott told the Travis County Commissioners Court that while some indicators had dipped slightly, that was to be expected as people put off seeking medical attention until after the holiday. This Wednesday, APH's chief epidemiologist Dr. Janet Pich­ette confirmed that APH is already seeing the direct impact of holiday gatherings on the metrics. As of Dec. 9, we're averaging 35 new COVID hospital admissions a day in the greater Austin area, 257 people are currently hospitalized with COVID, 82 are in an ICU, and 52 are on ventilators.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

COVID-19, Pfizer vaccine, Austin Public Health, Mark Escott, Texas Department of State Health Services, UT Health Austin, Amy Young, Terrance Hines, Janet Pichette

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