Ahead of schedule: How Austin police officers got the COVID-19 vaccine this week

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Starting Monday, members of the Austin Police Department will be able to begin getting the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, with officers who are older or who have health conditions getting priority.

Update: As of December 29, the City of Austin’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Management told KXAN that it is only APD’s sworn personnel that will be receiving the vaccine at this time, not civilian employees.

According to the state’s guidelines, first responders like firefighters and medics are in Phase 1A, the first tier of people who get priority for the COVID-19 vaccine. Police officers, however, were not included in that first tier.

But Austin health leaders explained Monday that thanks to extra doses for first responders from other Austin-area healthcare systems, more doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been freed up for Austin police.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine doses ready to be administered at the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center for Austin firefighters, police and EMS employees on Dec. 28, 2020. (Courtesy Austin Fire Department)

This has allowed APD employees to get vaccinated even sooner than expected. Just days ago, the Austin Police Association told KXAN APD officers were not scheduled to start getting their first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine until mid-January.

While APD told KXAN over the weekend all APD employees would be able to begin receiving the vaccine Monday, the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management clarified the initial distribution to APD would be more limited, with police officers over the age of 65 or with chronic health conditions prioritized first. This aligns with the state’s 1B criteria for the next tier of Texans to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

Vaccines roll out Monday

Austin police officers will be able to start getting the COVID-19 vaccine through an organization called the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center.

The center is funded in part by the city and provides resources for Austin first responders including physical fitness support, mental health care and vaccinations.

In the Week 2 COVID-19 allocations from the Texas Department of State Health Services, the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center was slated to receive 1,300 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

An Austin Fire Department employee receives the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine at the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center. Dec. 28, 2020. (Photo: AFD)

Austin Public Health, which is separate from the Wellness Center, is slated to receive 1,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine this week, but those doses will be going to frontline healthcare workers who haven’t already received the vaccine and to COVID-19 response staff.

Bryce Bencivengo, Public Information and Marketing Manager for the city’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management Department explained while the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center was originally planning to give this week’s doses only to firefighters and medics, things changed after first responders got vaccinated more quickly than expected.

Some first responders in Austin, including Austin-Travis County EMS medics and Austin firefighters, began getting the COVID-19 vaccine more than a week ago through partnerships with the University of Texas at Austin’s Dell Medical School. Other first responders have already been vaccinated through local hospital systems who got the vaccine last week. Ascension Seton tells KXAN as of Monday, it has vaccinated nearly 100 law enforcement officers and frontline responders. First responders who fall into the state’s 1A group can go to any COVID-19 vaccine provider to get vaccinated, including H-E-B locations and pharmacies.

With many firefighters and medics already inoculated, Bencivengo said the new doses arriving at the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center this week are available to go to police officers. He explained a doctor at the Wellness Center, in consultation with Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott as well as DSHS, made the decision to expand the center’s vaccine distribution to Austin police.

Bencivengo also said local health leaders have been “hearing from the state we wanted to get shots in arms” and have been trying to avoid letting vaccines sit unused on shelves.

“We are still waiting, like many others to hear what our next allocation will be,” he said.

How many firefighters and medics have already been vaccinated?

Austin Fire Department said Monday 300 of its employees were vaccinated through Austin Public Safety Wellness Center and more will be vaccinated there throughout the week.

Captain Christa Stedman with the Austin-Travis County EMS Pubic Information Office told KXAN Sunday all of its eligible employees had already been surveyed several weeks ago about whether they would like to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Of all those employees, Stedman said a “vast majority” of the ATCEMS medics said they would like to receive the vaccine.

ATCEMS Clinical Specialist Felipe Garcia receives his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine through a partnership with Dell Medical School (Photo: City of Austin)

Of the medics who opted to get the COVID-19 vaccine, 44% had already been vaccinated as of Sunday through a partnership with UT Austin’s Dell Medical School, which was one of the first entities in the state to receive the vaccine.

By the end of the day Monday following the first round of vaccinations at the Austin Public Safety Wellness Center, Stedman said now 66% of all ATCEMS medics who want the vaccine have been given the first dose.

“We are so excited to be able to vaccinate our workforce, which sees COVID patients daily, often without any assistance from our partner agencies,” she explained. “Our medics have never faltered in their commitment to this community, and we are ecstatic to have the ability to protect them even further with the vaccine.”

Stedman added the department aims to have every employee who wants the vaccine inoculated within two weeks.

Escott told reporters Monday ATCEMS’ success in getting so many employees vaccinated early on was “due in part due to our great partners at the University of Texas Dell Medical School, our partners at Ascension Seton who’ve had some vaccines to offer our first responders. And that process will continue.”

Getting vaccines to Austin police

Escott also reiterated reasons why APD employees would benefit from an early vaccination, “while they may not be medically certified as EMT’s for instance, they are providing first aid to people. They are providing help and support to our EMS providers and firefighters.”

Escott said the initial vaccination of APD employees “right now is going to be focused on those that are going to be higher risk,” who fall into the state’s 1B or second tier for COVID-19 vaccination priority based on age or other health factors.

“It may be some time before all of APD can get vaccinated, but our hope is—our reassurance is from the state has been that the vaccine will continue to come into our community so that we can vaccinate more and more people every week,” he added.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday receives the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine through his part-time work with Ascension Seton. (Photo: Ken Casaday)

At an Austin Public Safety Commission meeting earlier this month, Assistant Austin Police Chief Troy Gay said the department had 1,770 APD positions filled at the time. Bencivengo wasn’t sure exactly how many of those employees would be immediately eligible to get the vaccine, but he did say there is not enough vaccine supply this week for all of the more than 1,700 employees to get the shot.

Austin Police Association President Ken Casaday told KXAN Sunday he believes APD officers should have quick access to the vaccine, especially considering the number of APD officers testing positive for COVID-19.

At the Dec. 7 Austin Public Safety Commission meeting, APD presented data showing since March, there have been a total of 78 positive COVID-19 cases among the department’s sworn personnel and 24 cases among civilian personnel. Of those cases, a majority were covered under worker’s compensation, meaning they were work-related.

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