EDITORS NOTE: According to state law, ALL emergency services fall under the purview of the county judge. The four commissioners can offer suggestions or ideas on how to handle; however, when it comes to making the actual decisions…the buck stops with your county judge and the people he has put in charge. E.g., Alex Villalobos…the judge’s chief of staff.
Hays County residents expressed frustration last week when the county announced its registration portal would go live only 30 minutes in advance.
Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra was joined by Tammy Crumley, Director of Countywide Operations and the Local Health Department, Mike Jones, Director of Emergency Services and Alex Villalobos, Emergency Coordinator and Chief of Staff for a virtual press conference.
The press conference was held on an unofficial Hays County Judge Facebook Page, which Becerra set up shortly after taking office.
The video announced the arrival of 1,950 COVID-19 vaccines Friday, which would be administered by the Hays County Health Department.
According to officials, approximately 500 vaccines were set aside for residents who did not have internet access but would be able to register by phone.
The remaining vaccines were allocated to 15-minute time slots for Monday, Jan. 25 and Tuesday, Jan. 26, appointments through the county’s online registration portal, which went live just 30 minutes after the conference started.
Residents eligible under the Department of State Health Services Phase 1A and 1B were able to sign up.
While the video informed viewers of the portal’s activation, Hays County did not distribute the information and details including links to the form to local media until 1:40 PM.
Media sources including KXAN, KVUE, FOX and Corridor News scrambled to share the information with readers but by the time local media sources were able to turn the notification around, registration was closed.
Within 15 minutes of the portal becoming accessible, officials reported all of Hays County’s Vaccination time slots had been filled.
During Tuesday’s Commissioners Court, Commissioner Lon Shell said he was disappointed about how the information was distributed to the public as well as to the commissioners.
“I was extremely disappointed in the lead time for that first signup,” Shell said. “I’m glad that we’ve learned from that because I thought that was a disaster and I thought that was the exact wrong way that you provide public health. We need to have every avenue of communication possible, not just a Facebook post or video.”
One long-time Hays County resident said he learned of the sign-up period through a phone call from a local official.
“We had no idea a sign-up period was commencing within minutes of the call we received,” he said. “We still got frozen out, despite struggling with the system for the 15 or 20 minutes it took to exhaust the total supply of vaccines available. And I understand that not all of the 1,950 doses made it to the general public.”
Commissioners noted that not everyone has a Facebook while others may or may not follow the Judge’s unofficial page.
“For weeks, I’ve had constituents contacting my office about vaccines,” Commissioner Walt Smith said. “As I’ve gotten those constituent contact lists, I’ve forwarded them to the County Health Department in the hopes we could reach out to them.”
Smith said he learned about the vaccination registration via a media post by Rep. Erin Zwiener, and that wasn’t the way the commissioners should be receiving the information either.
Several residents reported the site crashed shortly after going live impeding a number of residents from registering.
Currently, the county does not offer a waitlist or pre-registration system like other Vaccination Hubs.
Becerra said residents will not be able to register for a vaccine unless the county has a vaccine to administer.
“I know that KXAN and KVUE and Fox and the Daily Record, and I could keep going…University Star,” Becerra said on Tuesday. “They’re all grabbing last night’s information as it was created and are circulating it. If there is someone doesn’t have internet, it won’t matter because all the traditional methods are disseminating the information as of last night.”
According to officials, the vaccines arrive frozen and take a couple of days to thaw before they can be administered.
“One thing I didn’t notice while trying to sign up online but was informed of today was that we supplicants actually had the choice of signing up for SMHS or Live Oak Health on Broadway. I never noticed that as I was playing a losing game of ‘Beat the Clock,’” a resident said. “Based on what I’ve been told, it turns out that 300 doses were allocated for Live Oak, and 960 were administered at the High School Monday. While I appreciate the effort of the individual to alert us to the semi-secret sign-up period, it’s unconscionable that we had to ‘Know Somebody’ to have a shot at this. No pun intended.”
On Facebook, Becerra noted that the Austin Public Health Vaccination hub continues to serve the metro area and does provide a waitlist that residents can signup for.
APH will contact registered individuals to schedule appointments for vaccinations when they have them available.
However, residents throughout Hays County are requesting a waitlist be created for Hays County to help prevent the mad rush to be next in line.
Officials said the registration reopen on Noon on Friday, Jan. 29, after the county receives its next allocation of vaccines.
Shell said he understands there are challenges with the management of a waiting list for vaccinations, but he wanted the county to look into doing it.
“I’m coming up with a hybrid waitlist that we will implement today,” Jones said. “I’ve seen the challenges of the Austin Public Health’s wait list. All these people signed up for the waitlist; they get their vaccine, and now they’re taking up a spot that someone else could use and that wastes a phone cal.”
Jones said the waitlist he is looking at will have residents on the sidelines who will receive the vaccine when necessary to prevent wasting vaccines.
How many vaccines the county will be receiving this week has not been announced. According to officials, as a Vaccination Hub, Hays County cannot limit vaccines to residents only.
“Let’s get our priorities straight: we are fighting a war here. And we can’t win that war unless we step up to the plate with the weapons and strategies necessary to vanquish the enemy,” one resident said in an email to commissioners. “If our standing army is not sufficient to win that war, then we must increase our troop strength.”