Chris Bennett spent much of Tuesday afternoon on the phone trying to find a vaccine provider for his parents and himself.
“I called H-E-B. I called St. David’s. I called Seton. And I called Austin Regional Clinic,” he said.
Each one told him that he and his parents couldn’t get a vaccine from them.
The Texas Department of State Health Services released guidance on Tuesday saying that vaccine providers should be serving patients in the so-called Phase 1B group now. That group includes people ages 65 and older and people above the age of 16 who have underlying health conditions that could lead to COVID-19 complications. Bennett and his parents fall into that group.
“It was pretty frustrating, the fact that nobody seems to know what’s going on,” he said. “The people I was talking to also seemed pretty frustrated because they seemed equally in the dark. It just seems like there was a lot of confusion and lack of coordination.”
On Tuesday, Texas DSHS Commissioner Dr. John Hellerstedt released a statement saying: “All providers that have received COVID-19 vaccine must immediately vaccinate healthcare workers, Texans over the age of 65, and people with medical conditions that put them at a greater risk of severe disease or death from COVID-19. No vaccine should be kept in reserve.”
Still, on Wednesday providers, including H-E-B, told patients they would only be serving people who fall into the Phase 1A group, which includes health care workers and other first responders.
However, a staffer at KUT/X said they were able to schedule a vaccination for their mother at the H-E-B on Burnet Road in Austin. But when the staffer went to make an appointment for themself, the pharmacist would not schedule it, even though they had a qualifying medical condition.
Austin Regional Clinic set up a website to screen and schedule patients for vaccination last week, though the site was not allowing patients to schedule an appointment based on the Phase 1B criteria as of Wednesday.
In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Ascension Seton said it would remain focused on the 1A group.
"Ascension Seton will announce publicly and share more details when the healthcare system moves to the next phase of vaccination," the statement said. "Ascension Seton continues to use all COVID-19 vaccines provided and does not hold any COVID-19 vaccines in reserve."
Texas DSHS has not responded to a request for clarification on the guidance to providers and whether providers have the authority to decide to only serve Phase 1A patients, regardless of Hellerstedt’s directive.
The confusion comes after earlier accusations from state officials that providers were not moving quickly in distributing the doses they had received.
On Christmas Eve, Hellerstedt sent a letter to vaccine providers saying there had been “unnecessary delays” in administering and reporting vaccines that had been delivered to the providers. He wrote that “every day a vaccine sits on the shelf is another day that prolongs the pandemic that is hindering our state’s economy and way of life.”
It’s not clear how many vaccine doses have been administered so far in Texas. The state reports 205,463 doses as of Wednesday, but local health officials say that number is lower than the actual total.
The state's vaccination dashboard shows 10,256 doses have been administered in Travis County, but the actual count is much higher, according to Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County.
“Each of our hospital systems have individually done more than [7,000 or 8,000], with more than 10,000 at most of them administered already,” he said during a press conference Wednesday. “There’s a data lag in that reporting. But rest assured, the providers that have the vaccine are getting it out the door as quickly as possible.”
The state is also reporting 678,925 doses of the vaccine have been delivered to providers in Texas — far short of the 1.2 million that the federal government allocated to the state in the first three weeks of distribution.
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