New COVID Milestones, but the Same Message: Get Vaccinated

Austin Public Health reflections on the road to herd immunity

Austin Public Health administers COVID-19 vaccines at one of its vaccine clinics in Northeast Austin on Saturday, March 13 (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Nearly 15 months after Austin Public Health identified the first local case of COVID-19, the agency hosted its final standing weekly Q&A with the media about the pandemic on Friday, June 4. "At this point in time last year, we were beginning to embark on the very first peak of this disease pandemic," said Chief Epidemiologist Dr. Janet Pichette. "We didn't know what lay ahead of us." It was a poignant reflection, as last Saturday, June 5, was the first time Austin's seven-day moving average for COVID-19 hospitalizations – local health officials' key indicator for evaluating Austin's risk level – dropped to 10 since Memorial Day of 2020.

Last week's presser featured Austin and Travis County's new non-interim health authority, Dr. Desmar Walkes, formerly holder of the same position in Bastrop. Austin's favorite TV doctor of the pandemic, Mark Escott, is now the city's first chief medical officer, a position created mid-pandemic last year to bring a physician's perspective into the city's executive ranks; he continues to provide medical oversight to Austin's emergency services, as he has since before the pandemic.

On the road toward herd immunity, Walkes said the biggest challenge lies in vaccinating residents who have been previously infected with the novel coronavirus, as they are still at risk of developing COVID-19 even after recovery. Infection-acquired immunity does produce some antibodies against the virus, but the vaccine is more effective, she said: "The [infection-acquired] antibodies themselves, we feel, only last for a 90-day period of time, so our big push is going to be to convince and educate those that have had COVID-19 that they still should get a vaccination."

As APH winds down its mass vaccination efforts with the vaccine becoming widely available, it will focus on place-based and pop-up clinics, said APH Interim Director Adrienne Sturrup. (Former APH head Stephanie Hayden-Howard is now an Austin assistant city manager.) In an effort to combat vaccine hesitancy, some local and state health agencies are offering incentives for people to get their shots, and Sturrup said APH is currently considering what might make sense here. "We know that there's still a concern with our working community about being able to take time off in order to get a vaccine, and so [we're] having conversations with local businesses and community partners to allow their workers to have the flexibility to take time off to go and get the vaccine."

About 75% of Travis County's 65-and-older population is fully vaccinated as of June 9, but only 55% of the county's entire eligible (12 and older) population is, according to Texas Department of State Health Services data. However, according to APH, more than two-thirds of all Travis County adults have received at least one dose, which aligns with President Joe Biden's national goal of 70% of all American adults at least partially vaccinated by July 4.

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Austin Public Health, COVID-19, herd immunity, Janet Pichette, Desmar Walkes, Mark Escot, Adrienne Sturrup, Stephanie Hayden-Howard

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