AUSTIN (KXAN) — Health leaders at the University of Texas at Austin said Tuesday the COVID-19 vaccine will be voluntary for campus community members, at least at this point. University representatives declined to give a set percentage of the campus community they hope to vaccinate but said they hope everyone who can take the COVID-19 vaccine will do so.
The university said it was designated as a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site by the State of Texas and “will soon receive and begin administering the vaccine to the [campus] community, beginning with designated health care workers.” The Texas Department of State Health Services has selected major healthcare providers across the state who will receive COVID-19 vaccine doses during the first week the vaccine is available. There are eight healthcare facilities in Austin alone on that list, and UT tells KXAN that its doses are listed next to UT Health Austin (the clinical practice for UT’s Dell Medical School).
UT also said that UT Health Austin will be the first distribution point for the COVID-19 vaccine on campus. The DSHS document lists UT Health Austin as receiving 2,925 doses of the vaccine during Week 1 of distribution.
“We hope that as many people [as possible] that are willing and able will be vaccinated,” said Amy Young, who is the Vice Dean of Professional Practice at Dell Medical School and the Chief Clinical Officer for UT Health Austin.
Young spoke at a press briefing Tuesday about the university’s plans to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine.
“It’s just a very important layer in our ongoing fight against COVID,” she said of the vaccine. “So we know when you get the vaccine, you have more protection, and as more people get vaccinated, we will add more protection to our community. It is really important to all of us to remember to mask and social distance and wash our hands as we go through this period.”
Young said that healthcare professionals who are affiliated with UT will also not be required to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, though the university is recommending that its healthcare professionals get the vaccine.
“It’s also a new vaccine, and we’re continuing to learn about that, and we’re also respectful that this is a personal choice for a lot of folks who take it very seriously, said Dr. Terrance Hines, Executive Director and Chief Medical Officer of University Health Services.
A spokesperson for the university told KXAN that the university doesn’t generally have the authority to mandate vaccinations. That’s up to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services, which mandates which vaccinations children and college students need for school. College students in Texas are required to get the meningococcal vaccination before heading to class.
A UT Austin spokesperson told KXAN that because the university is not mandating the vaccine, it will not ask campus community members who get vaccinated at other locations to report their vaccination to the university (though students who want to have their vaccinations included in their campus health records can share those with the university voluntarily).
Because the vaccine required two doses, the university will also need to follow up with people they have vaccinated to make sure the full process gets completed. UT tells KXAN it will use its electronic health records system to track which vaccine the individual received and to encourage patients at the time they get their first dose to schedule and appointment for their second dose. Each person the university vacinates will recieve a “vaccine card” which states what vaccine the university administered and when the patient is due for their next dose.
Director of UT’s Office of Campus Safety, Jonathan Robb, said that the university expects to receive less than 3,000 initial doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, all of which will go to healthcare workers. Robb also said that UT expects the Pfizer vaccine to be the first vaccine the university receives, pending federal approval later this week.
Because the Pfizer vaccine must be kept at ultra-cold temperatures, UT has identified locations across campus where this vaccine can be safely stored.
Robb told reporters that he doesn’t know yet which groups UT Austin will be allowed to administer the vaccine to after its health care workers receive their initial doses. That all depends on state and federal guidance, Robb said, explaining it is still unclear where students will fall in the phased distribution of the vaccines.
This comes as the university continues to manage and monitor the spread of the virus on campus. While all classes at UT have moved online for the duration of the semester after Thanksgiving, the university expects some students who went home in November or December to return to campus in January to move back into dorms or take in-person classes in the spring.
Hines said the risk of increased spread when the spring semester resumes is “certainly a concern.” Hines said the university is trying to communicate best health practices to students and asking them to limit their interactions seven days prior to travel.
Hines noted, even when campus community members have received the COVID-19 vaccine, “it is critically important that we will continue to do the social distancing, the masks until we get to that level of immunity in our community for it to be effective.”
KXAN asked UT at what level of immunity does the university believe measures like social distancing and masking will no longer be recommended on campus. The university did not state a specific percentage of campus-wide immunity it hopes to reach, “we will closely follow infection rates within our community, Austin, the state, and nationally as well as guidance from federal and state employees to determine at what point we can ease up on behaviors like universal masking and social distancing.”
UT told KXAN it has no plans right now to change campus public safety guidelines on masks, social distancing, and gatherings. Presently, the university requires face coverings to be worn indoors on campus in most cases and recommends that face coverings be worn outdoors on campus.
Other higher education institutions?
There are several other facilities connected to higher education institutions on the state’s list of places that will receive the first COVID-19 doses.
Austin Community College District tells KXAN that at this point, they have not been contacted about being a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site.
A spokesperson for St. Edward’s University said their university is not a COVID-19 vaccine distribution site either.
Impacting overall spread of the virus
UT is also home to the COVID-19 Modeling Consortium whose work has been used in Texas and across the country to help project the trajectory of the virus.
Spencer Fox, the associate director of the UT COVID-19 modeling consortium said that for the general population, his team expects the COVID-19 vaccine to help reduce deaths related to the virus in vulnerable populations.
While Fox doesn’t have any specific projections yet on how the vaccine will impact COVID-19 spread in the UT community, he said the university should be focusing on the same types of community testing it conducted in the fall, and if possible, expanding its testing capacity.
“I think it’s important that even though vaccines will start being rolled out, even if we start seeing mortality rates start to fall and Hospitalization rates fall in our community, I think it’s important that we still try and prevent transmission,” Fox said.
“It’s very likely that it will take, you know, months and months to actually get the vaccine to enough people to slow the spread and actually see transmission dwindle,” he noted. “So you know in the meantime, we need to you know be alert and take all the precautions that we’ve been taking over the past seven or eight months.”
Fox said he has full confidence in the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine and is looking forward to getting his turn to receive it.