AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin Public Health is still awaiting shipments of the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but one expert predicted it will be a “game changer” in the local fight to contain COVID-19.
During the agency’s weekly briefing Friday, Dr. Mark Escott, the interim health authority for Austin-Travis County, said he anticipates the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will become more widely available later this month and into April.
“It can be mass-produced. Because it’s a single dose, it does allow us to vaccinate a lot more people,” he said. “Once again, the vaccine you can get is better than the vaccine you can’t get.”
New mass vaccination sites possible
Cassandra DeLeon, the assistant director of Austin Public Health, said the agency is now looking at opening additional mass vaccination sites because of an expected increase in its vaccine allotment. She specifically mentioned the Burger Activity Center and the Travis County Exposition Center as options.
“We have the capacity to distribute exceeding 36,000 vaccines a week,” DeLeon said. “That’s not our current allocation from the [Texas] Department of State Health Services and so we are fully staged and ready to receive a large allocation of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine as early as next week.”
Texas DSHS told KXAN it received 24,000 doses of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Tuesday. All those doses went to the FEMA vaccination sites in Houston, Dallas and Arlington. DSHS expects to get an additional 200,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses to ship across the state next week.
In all, Texas expects to receive more than a million vaccine doses next week split between Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson.
Effectiveness of Johnson & Johnson vaccine
Dr. Escott also addressed a question about people’s concerns that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has a lower efficacy rate than the Pfizer or Moderna options. He pointed out how much higher its reported effectiveness is compared to the flu vaccine.
“The lowest efficacy for the flu vaccine has been about 10%. The highest recorded has been 60%,” Dr. Escott said. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the U.S. arm was more than 72% effective and more than 85% effective against severe disease. It’s an excellent vaccine.”
Reaction to Gov. Abbott easing restrictions
Much of the discussion during Friday’s briefing focused on the reaction to Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision earlier this week to end business capacity limits and the statewide mask mandate and what effect that may have locally on the spread of COVID-19.
Even though the governor encouraged people to still wear face coverings, Dr. Escott said his concern is that people seemed to focus less on the need to continue protective measures in the state.
“The governor said that in his opinion Texans don’t need a mandate because they’re doing the right thing,” Dr. Escott said. “We all have to remember that the governor is aligned on the messaging as far as what we all must still do to fight this disease. It is effectively a moral imperative that people wear masks. That means it is critical for all of us to embrace that.”
“We don’t want to get complacent and think that COVID is no longer with us,” said Stephanie Hayden-Howard, the Austin Public Health director. “It’s going to be important for all of us to continue to wear your mask and wash your hands and watch your distance.”
‘Extremely concerned’ about bars
Dr. Escott said later he is “extremely concerned” about bars being allowed to reopen at full capacity next week when the governor’s order goes into effect on Wednesday.
“Look, I think it’s reckless for bars to be open in the first place, particularly now when we’ve got increasing concern about variants,” he said. “We also have to remember that those individuals who frequent bars are the same groups of individuals who have close to zero vaccination.”
He said he feels like local business owners understand the importance of masking and distancing to protect customers and employees from getting infected by COVID-19.
“Today we’re still in Stage 4,” Dr. Escott said. “Today we’re recommending that businesses only open at 50%, and I think our businesses understand right now that if people don’t feel safe in the space, they will not come. I think business owners who choose not to require masks are going to quickly find out that people aren’t going to want to go to there.”
Vaccination sign-up problems
The local public health experts acknowledged the frustration many are still experiencing as they keep trying to sign up for an appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
DeLeon urged people not to show up to vaccination sites without an appointment. She said they can visit the Austin Public Health website, call 311 or contact providers directly to receive assistance with registering for the waitlist.
However, she pointed out the waitlist consists of more than 100,000 people at this time, and currently demand for vaccines far surpasses the supply.
Dr. Escott said the vaccine rollout highlighted the need for much more investment in public health technology infrastructure.
‘School Saturdays’ to vaccinate teachers
Austin Public Health said all people who are in Phase 1A or 1B can pre-register for the COVID-19 vaccine and will be added to the scheduling queue. That list now includes teachers, school staff and child care providers.
To better connect education workers with vaccines, Hayden-Howard announced the creation of “School Saturdays,” which will begin this weekend. She said Austin Public Health already identified more than 10,000 people on the waitlist who could now receive a shot, so the agency is starting the process to target them directly and book appointments.