San Antonio – City officials say the bottleneck in providing COVID-19 vaccinations to Bexar County residents continues to be the supply of vaccine doses.
City officials say only 154,500 doses had been received in the county, as of Wednesday. The slots at four mass vaccination clinics, run by University Health System, WellMed, and the City of San Antonio are currently full, quickly snatched up - sometimes in a matter of minutes - by the more than 1 million Bexar County residents currently eligible to receive the two-dose vaccine.
“What we’re still seeing because of the small amount of doses compared to the demand and the population size is almost a level of hysteria, right,” said District 7 Councilwoman Ana Sandoval in a Thursday council meeting, “and real concern and panic in the public that they’re not going to be able to get the vaccine.”
In a briefing to council members on Thursday, San Antonio Metropolitan Health Interim Director Colleen Bridger and other city staff said the supply of vaccine doses - the delivery of which is planned on a weekly basis - are the issue.
“The problem is not that we don’t have enough sites,” Bridger said. “The problem is that we don’t have enough vaccine.”
It has been a confusing and frustrating time for people trying to get their shots. Healthcare workers and nursing home residents were among the first eligible as part of phase 1A.
However, phase 1B expanded eligibility to anyone 65 or older or who’s at least 16-years-old with certain medical conditions. Bridger said that describes about 60% of Bexar County residents.
There is no central registration system to sign up to get the vaccine, though. Those eligible to get it have to contact providers individually, which they’ve been doing en masse.
The first mass vaccination clinic at Wonderland of the Americas, run by University Health System, saw its more than 17,000 slots snatched up in a matter of hours.
The 9,000 slots available at the Alamodome were filled within six minutes, and District 4 Councilwoman Adriana Rocha Garcia said the phone number to register for the two WellMed locations received 5.6 million calls for just 9,000 spots.
“I think one of the numbers that I received was 33,000 calls at one time,” Rocha Garcia said.
Not all of those who got slots may even be Bexar County residents, though. The Department of State Health Services lists both University Health System and Metro Health among 28 “vaccination hubs.” A person does not need to reside in that county to be vaccinated through one of these hubs, according to DSHS.
“If we use these mass vaccinations, then they have - as long as they meet the 1A or 1B, regardless of where they live or where they’re from - we have to make the vaccination available,” City Manager Erik Walsh. “That’s the commitment that we had to make to the state.”
Bridger said preliminary numbers indicated it was “still predominantly Bexar County residents who are coming here.”
District 9 Councilman John Courage said a central registry for the county should have been created in advance of the vaccine’s arrival. Bridger put the blame on the state, which she said switched during the week of Jan. 4 from the original plan of decentralized distribution through numerous smaller providers - similar to flu shots - to an emphasis on mass vaccinations.
“I understand the frustration, but if you can help me help people understand that this was not the city dropping the ball,” she said. “This was the state changing the game plan 10 days ago and us pivoting to be able to adapt to that change.”
Bridger said they have been told the vaccine is “incredibly scarce” over the next couple of weeks, and the state is focusing 80% of its vaccine supply on mass vaccination events and 20% on smaller suppliers, such as pharmacies.
Bridger and Walsh both said the city is unable to plan ahead, given how the vaccine rollout is working.
“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 from the manufacturer - in fact, it will change. It’ll just take a little bit of time.”
Mayor Ron Nirenberg and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff have asked Gov. Greg Abbott to send more vaccines to Bexar County, and Nirenberg and other mayors across the country sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden urging direct access to vaccines for cities.
Though all the mass vaccination slots are currently filled, a Metro Health spokeswoman said residents should continue to check the city’s vaccination site.
Smaller numbers of appointments may open up after people either miss appointments or make duplicate ones.