In a few weeks, Bexar County residents can start signing up to receive COVID-19 vaccinations through a communitywide registry that initially will prioritize people 65 and older.
City Council members voted unanimously Wednesday to allow City staff to finalize an agreement with HASA, a San Antonio-based health information organization, to establish a registry system that providers can consult when determining vaccine recipients.
The registry still needs to be developed and may take up to four weeks before it is ready to be implemented, the City’s chief information officer, Craig Hopkins, estimated.
“I know there’s a desire to deploy it faster than three to four weeks and we clearly hear that and we’re going to continue to work [on] that, but I’m trying to manage expectations,” Hopkins said.
As proposed, the registry system would ask people for contact information, age, proof of a Texas residency, and other details, Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger said. Mass vaccination sites such as the City-run Alamodome site and other providers could then reach out to the people on the registry and help them schedule appointments. Once a vaccine provider schedules an individual for a vaccination, the person’s name will be taken off the registry.
A pilot period for testing the registry will prioritize people 65 and older. About 86,000 people in Bexar County in that age group still need to be vaccinated, Bridger said.
“The pilot will last until we have a good sense of if it is working,” Bridger said. “And if it is working, then the group that’s developing the pilot will get together and figure out if this is something that is continued to be needed for a different population, and we will expand it to that.”
Residents without reliable internet access will be able to call 311 to add themselves to the registry, HASA CEO Phil Beckett explained.
“At the simplest level, it is a form that 311 and others providers can use to enter registered patients into a waitlist,” Beckett said. “That waitlist [is] then available to vaccine providers to consume, work, and get that population vaccinated.”
The move to embrace a vaccine registry comes after Texas opened up vaccine eligibility to all residents 16 and older, City Manager Erik Walsh said. That new guideline made scheduling vaccination appointments more difficult for older people and those without internet access, he said. Earlier this year, local officials declined to establish a registry.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), who has advocated for a vaccine registry, acknowledged that the proposal would not solve all of the challenges associated with vaccinating the entirety of Bexar County.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” she said. “It is another tool for our residents over 65 to be able to use so that if we streamline our registration process, residents can still go to online methods or can still call 311. We’ll still be able to call other numbers … but every resident that comes through this portal is one less person that is crashing a website somewhere else.”
Councilman John Courage (D9) thanked the staff and vaccine providers for working together on creating a registry pilot proposal, especially after hearing many calls from seniors sharing their frustration over getting a vaccination appointment. According to Jimmie Keenan, WellMed’s senior vice president of enterprise clinic operations, people have made more than 5 million calls in search of a coronavirus vaccine at its mass vaccination sites.
“Eventually, I hope all of the people in San Antonio will be able to take advantage of this,” Courage said. “I myself made hundreds and hundreds of calls [for an appointment]. I’m a senior. … This process will expedite [seniors’] opportunity to get on the list and expedite the process for the providers.”
City officials were unable to give an exact cost for the program Wednesday, though Hopkins put it in the ballpark of $100,000 to $200,000. It will be covered by a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention grant that funds coronavirus vaccine activity, Bridger said.
As of Wednesday, Bridger said, Bexar County’s mass vaccination sites have administered 738,290 doses, with 274,224 people fully vaccinated. More than 64 percent of the 65-79 age group have received one dose, while about 54 percent of people 80 and older have received at least one dose. That figure is expected to improve as people 80 and older now can get vaccinated without appointments.