Bexar County has received more than 154,000 coronavirus vaccine doses as of Wednesday, according to Colleen Bridger, assistant city manager and interim director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. 

Bridger briefed City Council members on vaccination efforts in the San Antonio region Thursday, three days after the city’s health department began vaccinating people at three new mass vaccination sites. However, the effort has come amid complaints from eligible residents about how quickly available appointments are snapped up. More than a million people in Bexar County are currently eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine under Texas guidelines, Bridger told them, a challenge that health officials are doing their best to meet with four mass vaccination sites. Among those four, Bexar County is administering around 27,000 vaccines a week.

“I am really impressed with how well everybody is doing this new way of providing vaccinations to as many people as possible,” Bridger said. “That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some glitches. We definitely embrace the ‘build it to use it’ framework. We’re working out kinks, especially in the registration process.”

Council members thanked Bridger and everyone involved with the vaccination sites for their work. Establishing sites on the south and west sides of San Antonio also will help significantly with vaccine access in more high-risk communities, Sandoval said.

“I used to think that the hardest part of my job was when people would ask if they could have a sidewalk on their street … and the hardest part was saying, ‘I don’t think we’re going to get to it this year,’ basically saying no,” Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said. “And it weighed on me. I think now the hardest part of my job is when people ask, ‘Where can I get a vaccine? Can you please help me get a vaccine?’ They are desperate. They are worried.”

Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) partipates in the announcement of the WellMed Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center as a COVID-19 mass vaccine distribution site.
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) partipates in the announcement of the WellMed Elvira Cisneros Senior Community Center as a COVID-19 mass vaccine distribution site. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Thousands of slots at the two WellMed locations filled up in five days, and the clinics experienced phone issues thanks to the overwhelming demand. (The Alamodome appointments, which could be made online, were gone in minutes.) As coronavirus cases in the area continue to rise, officials are focused on vaccinating as many people as possible, Bridger said. However, that does not mean other public health guidelines can fall by the wayside.

“We are really at a critical point in the pandemic itself and need for people to continue to stick with us and wear their masks and stay six feet apart and stay home when they’re sick and wash their hands,” Bridger said.

She also assured council members that Metro Health remains dedicated to looking at pandemic response and vaccination through an “equity lens”. Looking at local census tracts to determine which ones have the highest rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths, officials found that vaccines should be prioritized in Council Districts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, Bridger said.

Councilmen John Courage (D9) and Clayton Perry (D10), whose districts make up most of the city’s North Side, expressed concern about lack of access to vaccination sites for Northside residents.

“I think that right now, all the centers that we have set up are in the southern half of the city and people living in the northern half of the city are feeling like we’re not given the consideration,” Courage said.

One of the four mass vaccination sites, Wonderland of the Americas Mall, is on the North Side, located near the intersection of Loop 410 and Interstate 10 in Balcones Heights. Districts 8, 9, and 10 were among the city’s most populous as of 2018.

City Manager Erik Walsh reminded council members that all of the vaccination sites are open to anyone, regardless of where they live, as mandated by the state. He also that San Antonio is constrained by outside forces when it comes to how many vaccines the area can distribute at a time.

“What we do and what we can do is tied very closely to the state,” Walsh said. “And what the state can do is tied very closely to the federal government, and they are all moving in weekly tempo. There is nothing planned beyond seven days. And maybe that’ll change as product becomes more available for the manufacturer. In fact, it will change. It’ll just take a little bit of time.”

Council members also voted unanimously to seat three new VIA board members and reappoint two who have already been serving on the board. The Governance Committee selected Laura Cabanilla, Javier Paredes, and Melanie Tawil as board trustee finalists and recommended Athalie Malone and Bob Comeaux for reappointment at their Jan. 6 meeting.

“Public transportation is the lifeline of San Antonio for people of various abilities,” Tawil told council members Thursday. “If you don’t have a strong public transportation system, then you don’t have a strong economy. And as a business owner, I see all sides of public transportation. I see it not only as an economic development piece, but also as a thread that keeps people connected.”

Mayor Ron Nirenberg called the VIA board trustee selection process “very vigorous” as the transit agency continues to grapple with challenges caused by the coronavirus pandemic, reminding the board members of work that still needs to be done.

“VIA obviously is going through an important transition right now with the new chair [Fernando Reyes] as well as going into a post-pandemic recovery,” he said. “I’m going to be particularly interested in how the new stimulus funds will be used to augment operations, the $61 million now that will be flowing through the new COVID [relief] act.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to accurately reflect the number of vaccine doses Bexar County received.

Laura Cabanilla is a member of the San Antonio Report community advisory board. Find more information about the board here.

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.