AUSTIN (KXAN) — The way Austin Public Health administers COVID-19 vaccines will change in the next month, health officials said Friday.

Austin Public Health Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said the agency will implement a neighborhood model in addition to large sites. The new model includes setting up vaccination clinics at churches and other places, and Hayden-Howard referred to it as a “hybrid” model.

“We’re really going to look at what type of set up and what it might look like,” she said. “We’re going to maintain a couple of our large sites, and then be in those other spaces on Saturdays with expanded hours. That will start in May on a more permanent basis.”

She also said APH is working with Travis County about joining in the neighborhood model as well in hopes of getting the area to the goal of a 67% vaccination rate. “We’ll include more of our partners so people have that awareness,” she said.

APH Chief Epidemiologist Janet Pichette addressed the discovery of a new COVID-19 variant found by Texas A&M researchers and it’s an example of how “viruses don’t like to be comfortable.”

“It’s close to home, so we have concerns it could be spreading in the community,” Pichette said. “We monitor trends in the virus that are circulating in the community, just like we do with the flu.”

She also said the rise in cases in other states is “concerning,” and is monitoring those trends and hopes the area doesn’t “see a repeat of last spring — or fall.”

Dealing with vaccine hesitancy

One of the main hurdles healthcare officials across the country have had since the beginning of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is reluctance to get the vaccine. APH Assistant Director Cassandra DeLeon said a generic public education campaign simply isn’t enough to address concerns.

“We want to make sure people are aware of the real risks of not getting the vaccine, and we want to give people the facts about it,” she said. “We have to make sure vaccine is readily available so people can immediately get it, and we have to do focused outreach to populations who have traditionally had some hesitancy to not just the COVID vaccine, but to all vaccines.”

Focused conversations and outreach are key to APH’s efforts to answer concerns about the vaccine, DeLeon said. “It’s important people talk with their primary health physicians,” she said.

Hayden-Howard said family members or other trusted sources who have built relationships with people who have received the vaccine can help ease fears, as well.

“Sometimes it doesn’t happen in the first conversation,” she said. “It might take two or three times for them to have that conversation. All of this combined will help us address hesitancy.”

‘Demand is evolving’

DeLeon said demand isn’t dropping, but rather “evolving.”

“We definitely see the different settings are important,” she said. “When we do a small, community-based type of clinic, those fill up. It’s hard to say the demand is dwindling when they are so many people who still need vaccines.”

She said there are zip codes in Austin that are lagging behind in getting vaccines, and they are trying to make the vaccine more accessible to people in those zip codes.

She said she was “very encouraged” by the walk-up clinic APH held at the Delco Activity Center in east Austin. They said 887 people showed up and got their first doses.

“It was very revealing having the feedback from the public why they chose that option,” she said. “We continue to exhaust our weekly allocation of vaccine doses, so it’s tough to say if demand is going down.”

Pichette said people she talked to said the clinic helped bridge a sort of “digital divide,” and allowed people who wanted to get the vaccine could do so without the barriers of needing an internet connection.

“We chatted with a few people, and there are options that can help expedite the process,” Pichette said. She still said people can register on the APH site and make the process move a little quicker.

Dashboard data shows that on April 10, the rolling average of new hospitalizations was at 17, and as of case reporting Thursday, it is up to 22 new hospitalizations a day. There were 15 new admissions reported Thursday, and Friday’s numbers will be entered into the dashboard by 6 p.m.

While officials suggested a move to Stage 2 risk levels could happen by May, with the recent uptick in cases, they couldn’t offer a concrete timetable on that move.

Changes to briefing schedule

There are changes coming to how Austin Public Health runs their briefings as well. They’ve been held weekly since the beginning of the agency’s pandemic response, but now they’ll be held every other week with the next one on May 7.

APH also said it will “work to provide increased opportunities for one-on-one interviews with APH leadership as schedules allow.”