As Travis County continues to reach for herd immunity from the coronavirus, local researchers say that more efforts need to be focused toward neighborhoods in Austin’s eastern crescent, where vaccine coverage lags by several weeks.
Spencer Woody, postdoctoral fellow for the University of Texas COVID-19 modeling consortium, said Austin’s more economically disadvantaged areas have been affected the most, and continue to be, by the pandemic. The crescent spans north to south, east of Interstate 35, where many Black and Hispanic families live.
“We are seeing this gap pretty consistently,” Woody said. “And if anything, the gap has only increased over time. The ZIP codes that are the most vulnerable are about six weeks behind in terms of vaccinations.”
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Although the share of the population that is vaccinated has increased across the board, inequality has persisted.
In June, UT released a study using data going back to the early days of the pandemic in March 2020, indicating that several ZIP codes east of I-35 have low vaccine coverage rates and therefore higher rates of coronavirus-related hospitalizations and deaths than other parts of Austin.
According to data from Austin Public Health, Hispanic patients made up 23.5% of the hospitalizations for COVID-19, and Black patients made up about 8.31%.
East Austin ZIP codes such as 78702, which is directly east of downtown, 78741 and 78744 in Southeast Austin and 78724 and 78753 in Northeast Austin, have been among the highest in COVID-related deaths in the city.
While 78702 has about 70% of its residents at least partially vaccinated, those other four ZIP codes are among the lowest in vaccine coverage with many having less than 50% of their residents receiving at least one dose.
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Maureen Johnson-Leon, data equity specialist with the COVID-19 modeling consortium, said the lag correlates with social vulnerability — economic status, race, ethnicity, language barriers, transportation and accessibility.
Areas east of I-35 have traditionally been identified as having little access to bus routes, doctor’s offices, pharmacies and grocery stores, while neighborhoods west of I-35 have more access to those options.
About 62% of Travis County residents 12 and older are full vaccinated as of Wednesday, of that 3.78% are Black and 21.02% are Hispanic, according to the Texas Department of Health and Human Services.
Austin Public Health leaders have deployed teams to hold vaccine clinics in the affected areas, including at area libraries, apartment complexes, local businesses, churches, schools and community events.
Free rides to clinics across the city also are available through Capital Metro.
“We are laser-focused on addressing the barriers that prevent people from getting the vaccine, particularly in communities of color that have been more severely impacted by the virus,” Austin Public Health interim Director Adrienne Sturrup said. “We know the vaccines work, and are working with our partners and community leaders to get shots in arms.”
Sturrup, during a joint Austin City Council and Travis County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday, said efforts to vaccinate the eastern ZIP codes and in the Hispanic and Black communities have begun to improve, saying “we are heading in the right direction.”
But some organizational leaders have said it is too little, too late.
After so many coronavirus-related deaths in the community and a lack of availability for COVID-19 tests and vaccinations, leaders said that the trust for health leaders in Austin has declined among communities of color, directly contributing to the lag.
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That is why several of these groups have made it their mission to vaccinate their respective communities and distribute information about the importance of the vaccine, in the places that are most convenient to them.
These groups have long-standing relationships with the community having provided services before the pandemic such as food distribution, school supply drives and community events.
Working together to educate and vaccinate the Hispanic community and East Austin, the Austin Latino Coalition and the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association have deployed teams to local schools such as Walnut Creek Elementary and McCallum High School, to local restaurants like Amaya’s Taco Village and Casa Chapala, at Catholic churches through the Diocese of Austin, and at construction sites.
This month, the groups will set up a vaccine clinic at the annual Hillside Summer Concert Series, a long-standing East Austin tradition.
“This has been an epic failure on the city and county’s part,” said Paul Saldana, leader and coordinator for the Austin Latino Coalition. “We went over to Fiesta Tortillas. They have over 200 employees, and we could only convince 50 of them to get the vaccine because of the mistrust and lack of a vaccine confidence campaign.”
Frank Fuentes, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association, said that is where they have stepped in the most.
He said that while Austin and Travis County have put out social media messaging in Spanish, many Latinos don’t have access to social media. There has also been a lack of information available in Spanish, ranging from flyers to interpreters at televised conferences.
A team of volunteers with the association put together films, flyers and YouTube spots about safety protocols and the importance of the vaccine, and they did them in Spanish as well as English, Fuentes said.
“There is a lot of fear and misinformation out there, but people will go to a place that they can trust,” Fuentes said. “They trust the schools, the churches where they go to worship, and the place they go to eat. The city cannot social media their way out of this.”
Leaders with the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to connect vital resources to youth and their families in their transition to self-sufficiency, said they have hosted a number of efforts since the beginning of the pandemic, from providing protective gear with masks and hand sanitizer to offering appointment-free vaccines.
“It’s really about meeting people where they are,” said Ebonie Trice, administrative and program assistant for the foundation.
Michael Lofton, the foundation’s executive director and founder, said people are apprehensive to get vaccinated for historical reasons. And while there are opportunities at pharmacies, which are scarce in the East Austin area, clinics are most successful at churches, where people go every Sunday, and at nearby schools.
He said mobile units that deploy to each neighborhood, similar to the clinic on Tillery Street in East Austin, helps make it easier for people who are homebound or have no means of transportation.
Lofton said the foundation is working with 23 other organizations across Austin to help get people vaccinated. Through drive-thru clinics at the foundation’s Northeast Austin offices, walk-up clinics at local businesses, churches and schools, and case management with the 1,500 families it serves, Lofton said the group has started to make a dent in the unvaccinated numbers.
But many people still have yet to get vaccinated, and it takes more than social media posts and neighborhood clinics at the local grocery store.
“Sure, they are sending information out to folks on social media, but most of them who use that service already know,” Lofton said. “This affects the indigent that don’t have access to technology. We can’t assume everyone has technology. So, can more be done? Absolutely. There is always more than can be done.”
Community leaders say they are ready to help, but say they have been forced into this position, and with little financial support, volunteers and resources, that is becoming more difficult.
“We are ready to help,” Fuentes said. “There is a huge gap of people in our community who are not vaccinated, and we have to fill that gap. This is has become more challenging (without all the support), but we are going to keep going for as long as we can.”
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