Robert Chambers had been trying for more than a month to get a COVID-19 vaccination when the 68-year-old veteran heard about a pop-up clinic hosted by the regional Veterans Affairs health care system this past Saturday.
“I’d been looking on all the websites. I’d even gone out to Tejeda Middle School [for a different VA vaccine event] and when I got there they’d already run out,” said Chambers, who hoped for better luck at the clinic staged at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. “When I heard about this event today I ran.”
All around Texas and San Antonio, frustrated seniors are finding it difficult to get vaccination appointments, with some having tried for weeks only to be met with red tape or busy signals on phone lines. State guidelines make anyone over age 65 eligible for coronavirus vaccines, because older adults are more at risk for serious illness and death from COVID-19.
“Winning the lottery is easier than trying to get a vaccine in San Antonio,” resident Linda Ondrusek said. “We tried for the Alamodome when [Metro Health] announced the 10,000 appointments on Sunday, but 10 minutes later the website said there were no more appointments available.”
San Antonians working closely with older adults are being flooded with calls from frustrated residents. DeAnne Cuellar is the state director for Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), a nonprofit organization that aims to equip seniors with technology skills. OATS workers were inundated with calls on their local hotline from seniors, some in tears, seeking help getting appointments.
“I don’t think we anticipated what the tone of the calls would be like,” Cuellar said. “That’s the part that was hard for our technology trainers … to listen to a lot of voicemails from older adults … [who were] frustrated,” Cuellar said. “It really [took] an emotional toll on the team.”
For some residents, Gov. Greg Abbott’s announcement Tuesday that he will lift the mask mandate next week only heightened their desperation to get vaccinated. With many of those eligible for vaccines still waiting for vaccine appointments more than two months after vaccinations began locally, Texans are asking why it’s so hard to get those slots.
Supply and demand
Demand for the COVID-19 vaccine still greatly outweighs the current supply in Texas. With 29 million residents, Texas is the second largest state in the country both by population and by land area. Of that, an estimated 13%, or about 4 million people, are 65 or older, according to census data.
Texas’ 1B vaccination group also includes anyone 16 or older who has a chronic health condition, including but not limited to those with cancer, chronic kidney disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart conditions, coronary artery disease or cardiomyopathies, solid organ transplantation, obesity and severe obesity, who are pregnant, have sickle cell disease, or type 2 diabetes mellitus. According to census data, about 8% of Texans under the age of 65 have a disability of some sort – accounting for an additional 2.5 million people.
On Wednesday, school staff and child care workers were added to the eligibility list.
On top of Texas’ large population of eligible vaccine recipients, both the Pfizer vaccine and Moderna vaccine are a two-dose round, requiring double the supply needed for each person receiving the vaccine. As of Wednesday, Texas providers have administered more than 6 million doses. More than 3.8 million people have received at least one dose, and almost 2.2 million are fully vaccinated. But that’s only about 6.5% of the state’s population.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Texas has received the second-largest shipment of vaccine doses in the country but is ranked as one of the lowest in the number of people vaccinated per capita: 48th.
“We still need more vaccines,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said Tuesday after Abbott’s announcement lifting the mask mandate. “There’s another shot coming to the state, [but] unfortunately at this time the governor’s changed everything around – took away all our protective measures.”
With President Joe Biden pushing for there to be enough vaccine for every U.S. adult by the end of May, the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccination was approved for emergency authorization by the Food and Drug Administration earlier this week. Pharmaceutical giant Merck will help manufacture the new vaccine, a move intended to quickly increase supplies.
San Antonio Metropolitan Health District spokeswoman Michelle Vigil said the department doesn’t know when or how many doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine it will receive. Representatives from UT Health San Antonio, Baptist, and University Health also said they are unsure when they will receive Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses but are expecting some soon.
Marion Lewis wasn’t expecting to become a “scheduling angel” when she first began looking for available vaccine appointments. As someone who fit into the 1B vaccination-eligible group, the Austin resident was simply looking at where she could receive a dose herself.
After joining a local Central Texas Facebook group called “San Antonio Vaccine Hunters” Lewis grabbed a slot and get vaccinated. Still seeing hundreds struggling to find an appointment – especially seniors – Lewis decided she wanted to help others get vaccinated, too.
“I work in cybersecurity, and I know how to use a computer,” Lewis said. “The user interface of all these different websites is so different, and each of them asks for different information. It’s confusing. I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there, just a lot of confusion around the process. I figured if I had a little bit of trouble trying to find something, then other people out there were definitely having more trouble than me.”
Lewis was right. Over the next few days, she and a friend successfully obtained appointments more than 20 seniors in Austin, New Braunfels, and San Antonio.
“I was talking to one person who said they were getting so depressed about it, and that they have been looking for a vaccine since January. He said he was just getting really depressed and down in the dumps about the whole thing – didn’t think he’d ever get a vaccine,” Lewis said. “The fact that I got him the appointment, and it was for the following day, he was just in disbelief.”
Crowdsourcing has become the new solution, and Facebook isn’t the only platform local residents are utilizing. One Austin resident, software engineer James Kip, started a group on the Slack messaging app called Texas Vaccine Updates, with about a dozen channels using integrations to comb different sites registering people for vaccinations.
Since Kip started the group on Jan. 29, more than 11,000 people have joined. Kip said the group is averaging about 1,000 new members a day. One of them is Arthur Garza, a San Antonio resident and who said he’s helped over 80 San Antonians who are in groups 1A and 1B get vaccine appointments since he joined the Slack group about a month ago.
“I especially have a heart for elderly,” Garza said. “They’re our most vulnerable population and many don’t have the computer skills to know where to look nor be fast enough to fill out forms before someone else takes the appointment.”
Garza said he simply helps anyone who reaches out to him directly on the Slack group’s “help needed” channel.
“I’ve gotten comments like, ‘I’m shaking right now,’ or ‘You are our hero,’” Garza said. “It warms my heart to help.”