This story has been updated.

Two of San Antonio’s four mass coronavirus vaccination sites are planned for the South and West sides after a push from City officials and medical personnel.

Officials plan to vaccinate 9,000 people this week at WellMed senior centers on the South and West sides, following the efforts of a group of City councilwomen and other supporters to bring mass inoculation sites to the parts of San Antonio worst ravaged by the coronavirus.

Appointments are available only by phone at 833-968-1745. Starting Saturday, 50 phone operators with telehealth company Carenet Health are available to take calls, officials said. That number will increase to 150 on Monday.

Many callers couldn’t connect to the hotline over the weekend. Dan Calderón, vice president of communications for WellMed, confirmed at 11:30 a.m. Sunday that the line still works and that appointments remain available. However, callers have to try repeatedly to get through because of the massive call volume.

“You’ll have to connect at the right time,” he said. 

On Saturday, approximately 124,000 people called to try to book appointments, Calderón said. The vast majority of those calls went unanswered. Operators were able to answer 1,135 of them and book 2,768 appointments, with some callers booking appointments for multiple members of the same household, he said.

Councilwomen Rebecca Viagran (D3), Adriana Rocha Garcia (D4), and Ana Sandoval (D7) stressed the difficulty elderly and low-income residents who struggle with internet access experience when trying to make a vaccine appointment digitally.

“Equity on the South Side does not include an online registration portal,” Garcia said.

WellMed will give 6,000 vaccine doses of the Moderna vaccine at its Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center at 517 SW Military Drive and 3,000 Moderna vaccine doses at its Alicia Treviño López Senior Center at 8353 Culebra Road. The vaccines will be free of charge.

WellMed staff will vaccinate those who make appointments from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. The sites offer no walk-in appointments, and officials urged people not to show up at the clinics without calling first.

The addition of the WellMed sites means San Antonio will have four mass vaccination locations. However, no appointments are available as of Saturday at the City’s Alamodome site or the site at Wonderland of the Americas mall operated by University Health.

Jimmie Keenan, a WellMed senior vice president, urged people with transportation and reliable internet access not to “drive from the north part of San Antonio and take an immunization away from somebody who doesn’t have the ability to go to Wonderland Mall or the Alamodome.’”

“This is where we all have to be human and not be self-centered,” said Keenan, a retired major general and former chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

In the early weeks of vaccine rollouts, access to vaccines is proving elusive even for San Antonio residents who qualify for doses. Currently, State protocols prioritize frontline health care workers, long-term care facility residents, people 65 and older, and people 16 or older with long-term health conditions that put them at greater risk of severe illness or death.

At a press event Saturday, WellMed staff offered a tour of the soon-to-be vaccination site. They had taped path markers along the floor of a wide-open room full of paintings from senior art classes and workout equipment left unused since the pandemic.

In a rear room, they had set up tables with 15 vaccination stations. Medical personnel will administer the shot, then observe recipients for 15 minutes to make sure there are no adverse reactions.

During the event, Viagran, Garcia, and Sandoval focused on the need to bring vaccines to the low-income and predominantly Latino South and West sides, where heath conditions such as diabetes, asthma, and heart disease are found at disproportionate rates. City Council districts 3, 4, and 5 have seen the highest rates of coronavirus infections and deaths, according to Metro Health data.

Local officials and health care workers join at WellMed Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center to announce an upcoming COVID-19 vaccine distribution where access to South Side residents can be inoculated.
Dr. Lyssa Ochoa speaks to the importance of providing health care for the South and West sides. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Viagran told the San Antonio Report that the three were “adamant” that a site should go on the South Side because of the disproportionate death tolls.

“We worked hard and we found a great partner” in WellMed, Viagran said, adding that several private physicians had also joined the effort.

One of them, Dr. Lyssa Ochoa, told reporters Saturday that the effort was “one of the most important things I’ve ever done as a vascular surgeon in San Antonio.”

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.