Disproportionately affected by COVID-19, now Latino and Black communities struggle to access the vaccine
South Austin resident Omar Gomez has spent the last week driving around town and refreshing the H-E-B website, looking for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment for his 93-year-old grandmother, who lives with his aunt.
"When we went in person, there wasn't any available," Gomez told Austonia.
His grandmother qualifies as a member of Group 1B, which includes people ages 65 years of age and older as well as those with a chronic medical condition. Texas public health officials said on Dec. 29 that vaccine providers should expand access to 1B, but most still do not have the supply to meet the demand from 1A individuals, such as frontline healthcare workers and long-term care facility residents.
"There was no clear communication," Gomez said. "Everything's vague."
The statewide vaccine distribution process has been bumpy. In addition to mixed messages, data delays and missed targets, local elected officials and community leaders have raised concerns about equity.
The greatest need
There are 70 ZIP codes across the city of Austin and Travis County. Four of them—78660 in Pflugerville, 78753 in Northeast Austin, and 78741 and 78744 in Southeast Austin—account for more than a quarter of the area's total COVID-19 caseload this pandemic. Three of them are east of I-35, and the fourth straddles it.
But only 12 of the 62 facilities in Travis County that have received allotments of the COVID vaccine from the state of Texas are on the east side, which local elected officials and community leaders say is inequitable and shuts out those communities most impacted by the virus.
The vaccine distribution sites in Travis County are largely concentrated on the west side of I-35. The most impacted ZIP codes, however, are almost entirely on the east side. (Texas Department of State Health Services)
"The COVID-19 virus has really put a magnifying glass on disparities in the Eastern Crescent and in communities of color and other communities that are existing in the margin," Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper Madison said Monday.
Black and Latino residents have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Black residents make up less than 8% of the city's population but account for 10% of COVID deaths, according to the U.S. Census Bureau and Austin Public Health. More egregiously, Latino residents make up roughly one-third of the city's population but account for 46% of confirmed COVID cases and nearly half of COVID deaths.
The lack of access to vaccine providers in the communities hit hardest by the virus is like deja vu, harkening back to similar issues during the testing rollout earlier in the pandemic, said Paul Saldaña, a fourth-generation East Austinite and member of the Austin Latino Coalition.
The local and state public health departments have not yet accounted for language barriers, lack of internet access and cultural differences that may determine whether someone is able to get vaccinated or not, Saldaña said.
For example, Group 1A includes residents of long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes. "It's unusual for communities of color to put their family members in nursing homes," he explained, and there's no plan in place to get shots into the arms of elderly people living with relatives, such as Gomez's grandmother.
"The need is so great," Saldaña said.
Historic disinvestment in communities east of I-35 has left the community with a lack of resources.
"There are structural problems that have been created by local customs," Travis County Commissioner Jeffrey Travillion said Monday, pointing to Austin's 1928 master plan, which codified segregation and continues to impact residents today.
One lasting impact is the existence of food and transit deserts, or neighborhoods that lack grocery stores, good public transit and other public resources.
"It's very likely for the minority neighborhoods and the low-income neighborhoods to become a transit desert and a food desert," said Dr. Jungfeng Jiao, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Texas School of Architecture.
More than a third of the vaccine distribution sites in Travis County are H-E-B pharmacies. Although the San Antonio-based food chain has been lauded for its response during the pandemic, it does not serve every community.
"If you're talking about vaccines in H-E-Bs, well, Manor doesn't have one," Manor Mayor Larry Wallace said Monday. Similarly, there are no CVS or Walgreens locations in the suburban city east of Austin.
For a resident without a car, or who is homebound because of a chronic illness, this could mean the difference between receiving a vaccine and going without.
"When you don't have very good public transportation or you don't have any transportation mode, you are in a disadvantaged position to access (a) healthcare provider," Jiao said.
Rethinking the rollout
To address these issues, local elected officials are calling on the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is in charge of allocating the state's vaccine supply, to find alternative distribution sites, such as fire departments, public schools, churches and RVs.
Travillion suggested the Travis County Expo Center in Northeast Travis County, and Harper-Madison said Huston-Tillotson University's East Austin campus could be an option.
Earlier this week, 38 members of the Texas House lobbied the state to improve its response by expanding the priority groups to include frontline workers such as teachers, grocery store employees and daycare workers.
1/ I've received calls from people frustrated & confused by the vaccination rollout in Texas. In response, I sent t… https://t.co/bIPmXgziWR— Rep. Vikki Goodwin (@Rep. Vikki Goodwin)1609973866.0
Saldaña and other members of the Austin Latino Coalition have also been pushing Austin Public Health to develop a bilingual public education campaign to help address misinformation and reach vaccine skeptics.
The Pew Research Center found last month that Black and Latino Americans are less inclined to get vaccinated than other racial and ethnic groups, which stems from medical mistreatment and other concerns. Immigrants may be concerned about the information asked of them during the vaccine process, Saldaña said, and people of color are also more likely to have a chronic medical condition, which they may worry could lead to side effects.
APH officials said earlier this week they are working to develop a public information campaign as they wait for the state to increase its allocation of COVID vaccines to local suppliers.
"That process should have started last year," Saldaña said, "when we already knew these vaccines were under development."
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Mount Bonnell<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTUyMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MDEzODU5NX0.SQVQYQc5VpT_UQe-BQsexRgUp1yIUbjiB-Hz7cAgkUE/img.jpg?width=980" id="6a82f" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6909566cc1a80e66660ddb3153882a5f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1599" data-height="1066" />
(Spawnzilla/CC)<p>Mount Bonnell is probably the most well-known scenic locale in Austin and has been since the 1830s. Known for its panoramic view of downtown, Lady Bird Lake and the Hill Country to the west. Today thousands of visitors ascend the 106 stone stairs to the summit to take in the beautiful view. Located in Covert Park in Northeast Austin, the trail is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail and Boardwalk at Lady Bird Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjg0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMjg2NjY4OH0.3hTVUhMTrJ7FkqWgYivC03M7NbQGhkvM85St6nSACF8/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C240%2C0%2C240&height=800" id="6db33" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="be5523bfa32d06f91a0e0915e7f1fd3b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1200" data-height="800" />
(MX/Wikimedia)<p>The Ann and Roy Butler Hike-and-Bike Trail is a 10-mile boardwalk with numerous entrance and exit points and is Austin's most recognized and popular recreational trail. Not only is it an Austin favorite for exercise, it also hosts one of the most beautiful views of Austin's skyline the city has to offer. The paved trail runs over Lady Bird Lake, also known as Town Lake, giving people an undisturbed view of Downtown Austin overlooking the water. The trail is dog friendly with a leash and wheelchair accessible.</p>
Zilker Park<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc5Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NDE0NzMzNn0.hE8NKm_6Ldoi36TZcTVHAbc9K6H1FWTqnI8cK60u3jY/img.jpg?width=980" id="2cb32" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f4696ca4392a59a956761ae419b161a7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Mwyzykowski0821/Wikimedia)<p>Zilker Park is Austin's pride and joy. The park hosts ACL every year (when there isn't a pandemic), the Trail of Lights each holiday season and other events in the city. The 351-acre space is the go-to locale for Austinites who want to get outside and enjoy a direct view of the city skyline--usually serving as a backdrop for any event held at the spot. As one of the only scenic destinations to allow dogs off-leash, it is the most dog-friendly spot in the city. Zilker Park is wheelchair accessible (although it might be best to avoid the park after rain).</p>
Barton Creek Greenbelt-Sculpture Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTU2My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyOTU1NDE2NX0.kM0EJgiwl60yCLYd2xMtqPUM9ukysu_KmQhMiP6XGMo/img.jpg?width=980" id="75e17" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="64cdd0ef728567c25261e17227855fe6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
(Austonia)<p><strong></strong>Sculpture Falls is a hidden location on the 7.9 mile Barton Creek Greenbelt. The best way to access the location is via the Hill of Life and the Trail's End access point in South Austin at 1710 Camp Craft Road. The scenic views of this location may not be sweeping views of the city skyline, however, the glistening pools and waterfalls, the trees hanging over the water make the spot one of the most underrated in Austin. The hike back up the Hill of Life is 1.5 miles and mostly on the sun, so make sure to bring plenty of water. The location is dog-friendly with a leash, but it is not wheelchair accessible.</p>
McKinney Falls-Upper and Lower Falls<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk3Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzODY3MTE0NH0.yBqNznABvsJCBp_tdrREOMI20eWy3a4dNLwBbe4SKAc/img.jpg?width=980" id="135bf" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c712742e6dbe4592a7294aad89b9f655" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1760" data-height="796" />
Photo of Lower McKinney Falls
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>McKinney Falls is one of the many Texas State parks and is a series of two waterfalls–an upper and lower falls. Both spots feature limestone waterfalls along Onion Creek and swimming pools. The lower falls are more shallow and recommended for families with younger children while the upper falls are a bit deeper. Pets are allowed on a leash in the park, however, they are not allowed in the water at the falls. The park is not fully wheelchair accessible. There is a $6 fee for adults to enter the park and children under 12 can enter for free. During COVID, it is recommended to make reservations to enter the park if you plan to visit.<br></p>
Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzNTc0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMDEyNzM3Mn0.HATaya2WqEf1dRD6zO2WMvoCQii7mHKa9oJ9H2Huxqg/img.jpg?width=980" id="f503b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="96c77fa947db2d4ae07efc545785fc12" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2040" data-height="1530" />
(Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center/Facebook)<p>Located in far-west Austin, Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center is the farthest out from Austin's city center and is another location that may not offer sweeping views of the Hill Country, however, the center features some of the most unique views in Texas. The highlight of the preserve is Westcave at the head of the canyon. It features a 40-foot waterfall backed by caves, diverse vegetation and an emerald pool. Canyon tours are not dog-friendly but are wheelchair accessible; they are offered every Saturday & Sunday. Self-guided hikes are offered Tuesday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and require reservations.</p>
Red Bud Isle<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzQ0MTk2MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MTcwNDA4N30.ImQe01BIolSJVNBCJAFbQz1WfuDP8fitr_XXZWNytQk/img.jpg?width=980" id="767c3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a21655c41f9c7da188eb99dd0371d2dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="lady bird lake dog winslow swimming" />
(Austonia)<p>Red Bud Isle is one of the most popular areas for pet owners to let their dogs off-leash in Austin. The small island lies just below the Tom Miller Dam on Town Lake. The edge of Red Bud Isle offers a view of Town Lake and the densely-packed trees to either side. Depending on the time of year, colorful kayaks and stand-up paddleboards add some pop of color to the view. The 13-acre park is, of course, dog-friendly and wheelchair accessible. Be careful with your pets during the summer months, however, as there have been <a href="https://austonia.com/city/algae-killing-dogs" target="_blank">toxic algae blooms two years in a row</a>.<br></p>
Wild Basin Preserve<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzEyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNTMwODY3N30.aw3W_bvqThNlF_9WGE5GVte7ajhJoPQxQEUnM4FCT4Y/img.jpg?width=980" id="0b1a3" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="615c86b10cc2c034b9518f73534cad3e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1600" data-height="900" />
(Larry D. Moore/Wikimedia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">The Wild Basin Preserve is 227 acres of Hill Country woodlands owned by Travis County and St. Edwards University as part of the larger Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, which protects the unique environments of seven endangered species and 28 threatened plant and animal species. The preserve is home to the endangered Golden-cheeked warbler as well as many other Texas-native plants and wildlife. There isn't any one location that is the highlight of the preserve—the highlight is spotting the local wildlife. While it has been closed for the past several months, Wild Basin is expected to open for limited hours in late-January. It is not pet-friendly and is somewhat wheelchair accessible.</span><span style="background-color: initial;"></span><br></p>
Barton Springs<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjk2NS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2NTY4NzMzMH0.1Nd-a5CEiPDSaLOB_nJYAZiHC8dZVvS5l4QOJhHsvd8/img.jpg?width=980" id="721f6" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="82bc4f00174755913a86a103f01ad6ad" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="720" data-height="403" />
Section of Barton Springs on the paid access side. (austintx.gov)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">Barton Springs is another one of those locations that doesn't have one particular highlight. There are two sections to Barton Springs: one section requires a small entrance fee and allows for a little more space to sprawl out, whereas the other, much larger, section is free but sometimes requires a little creativity with where you set up camp. Both sides feature cool, clear, blue water from the natural springs in the area. </span><br></p>
Congress Avenue Bridge<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMjc4OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDkyNjcxNn0.ieWjFaKRtsoVrudyGVtp_q3xlM8ghFgd7Y-QZqQVOoo/img.jpg?width=980" id="c4dfa" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4e69c74aa25973d14285a49d8b070bd1" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="641" data-height="426" />
(Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)<p>The Congress Avenue Bridge goes over Lady Bird Lake and is a place to get a very unique view of the city. Every year, Austinites gather on the bridge to witness up to 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats feed on 10-30,000 pounds of insects. The best time to view the bats is mid-August when you can see them ascending into the evening sky. This area of Austin is wheelchair accessible and pet-friendly with a leash.</p>
The Middle of Town Lake<img lazy-loadable="true" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTUzMzExOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MjIxNDQzN30.DAnxtXZTYH60LicTxw4J_qzJ7CSZ2ez7hNi8qFaxjJ4/img.jpg?width=980" id="a81af" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="4dc3198f3a64889a16d7f442f56e0a2c" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="4032" data-height="3024" />
Evening view from the middle of Town Lake
(Laura Figi/Austonia)<p><span style="background-color: initial;">This one might seem a little odd, but get yourself a kayak or stand up paddle board and enjoy the view of the city from the water. It's a unique perspective on the city that is probably the best representation of why this city is so unique. There are also some boat tours throughout the year. Boat tours are wheelchair accessible. The lake has multiple entrance points and pets are allowed on water vessels, but not in the water.</span><br></p>