San Antonio COVID-19 vaccine registry too little, too late

While months ago a vaccine registry for the City would have filled a clear and urgent need, it is now simply an inferior offering compared to the numerous alternatives now available.

On March 31, City Council met in a special session to discuss creation of a vaccine registry, otherwise referred to as vaccine waitlist. Ultimately Council voted unanimously to move forward with this initiative, expected to cost taxpayers $200,000*. After two weeks of development, the approved registry entered its pilot phase the week before last. This registry lags other major metroplexes throughout Texas where a registry was established much sooner, including Austin, Houston, and Dallas.

Back on February 4 of this year, Council considered the possibility of a vaccine registry. At the time, Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger strongly advised against such a measure, stating that “all of us who are doing the work are clearly communicating to you and everybody else that that is not a best practice [to provide residents with a vaccine registry].” As these discussions were occurring, residents throughout San Antonio were calling hundreds or even thousands of times each, attempting to register for the available vaccine appointments. Councilman John Courage described his own frustration in attempting to schedule vaccination for himself during this same meeting. The volume of calls necessary to successfully register for vaccination at this time resulted in a clear equity gap, where the more affluent with time available to spend hours on the phone were able to get appointments, while those who needed to work or had other responsibilities had no opportunity to schedule a vaccination appointment.

Returning to present day, following the vote to establish this registry, Council members were quick to promote this decision as a victory for San Antonio residents frustrated with existing processes available to register for vaccination. In a newsletter to District 7 residents on April 2, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval noted that “I have heard for months from residents that getting a vaccine appointment feels like a lottery system that only those with fast internet and flexible schedules can win.” If Council had chosen to take action in the February 4 meeting in response to these residents pleading for a better solution, before Texas expanded eligibility for the vaccine to all residents over 16, this registry would have already completed pilot testing and reached general availability in time to support the millions of San Antonians newly eligible to be vaccinated now.

Because Council chose not to establish a registry earlier this year, private corporations stepped in to bridge the gap. As of writing this, HEB, Texas MedClinic, Walgreens, and many other private vaccine providers all have first vaccine appointments available to be booked this week in and around San Antonio. These available appointments can be scheduled through the corresponding company’s easy-to-use website. HEB, for example, provides a vaccine search able to target appointments within configurable radius around a specific zip code, optionally filtered by which specific vaccine is available, which will continually refresh and alert the user as soon as an appointment is available. Tools such as this have been available for weeks and in some cases months to all San Antonians, regardless of age. Residents have learned to rely on these privately funded resources in place of City resources, as indicated by decreasing call volume to City and County call centers in conjunction with an increasing number of Texans qualified to receive the vaccine leading up to the March 31 Council meeting.

In addition to the private sector contribution to readily available vaccinations, no-appointment vaccinations are now regularly available at the Alamodome.

Meanwhile, the City’s vaccine registry is only now entering an early pilot phase. A press release from the City on April 14 notes that “it is possible for it to take several weeks to get an appointment.” The registry is additionally currently only available for residents 65 years of age or older. The City’s registry pilot is clearly lacking in comparison commercially available alternatives and only incorporates a small percent of the vaccine providers working across the City.

While months ago a vaccine registry for the City would have filled a clear and urgent need, it is now simply an inferior offering compared to the numerous alternatives now available. The registry seems like a attempt by the City to catch up on a missed opportunity. Instead of pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into this unnecessary tool, much more targeted efforts to reach vulnerable communities unable to take advantage of existing tools would have provided far more value to the San Antonio community.

* See 1:20:00 timestamp in 2021-03-31 special session, where this cost estimate is noted.