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, delayed data 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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If you are a committed, grunge-wearing resident of the Pacific Northwest, it is easy–almost automatic–to look at Texas as an extraordinarily dry, hot and culturally oppressive place that is better to avoid, especially in the summer. Our two granddaughters live with their parents in Portland.
Recently we decided to take the older girl, who is 15, to Dallas. Setting aside the summer heat, a Portlander can adjust to the vibes of Austin without effort. So let’s take Texas with all of its excesses straight up. Dallas, here we come.
Our 15-year-old granddaughter and her sister, 12, have spent summer weeks with us, usually separately so that we could better get to know each individually. In visits focused on Austin and Port Aransas, the girls seemed to be developing an affection for Texas.
Houston and Dallas are two great American cities, the 4th and 9th largest, each loaded with cultural treasures, each standing in glittering and starchy contrast to Austin’s more louche, T-shirts and shorts ways.
Three hours up I-35, Dallas loomed before us as a set of gray skyscrapers in a filmy haze, accessed only through a concrete mixmaster of freeways, ramps and exits. I drove with false confidence. Be calm, I said to myself, it will all end in 10 minutes under the hotel entrance canopy. And it did.
The pool at the Crescent Court Hotel in Dallas. (Crescent Court Hotel)
We stayed three nights at the Crescent Court Hotel ($622 a night for two queens), a high-end hotel in Uptown, patronized by women in white blazers, business people in suits, and tall, lean professional athletes, their shiny Escalades and Corvettes darting in and out, and other celebrities like Bill Barr, the former attorney general who shoe-horned his ample self into a Toyota.
Each morning as I walked to Whole Foods for a cappuccino, a fellow identified by a bellman as Billy the Oilman arrived in his Rolls Royce Phantom. Where does he park? “Wherever he wants to. He likes the Starbucks here.”
We garaged our more modest set of wheels for the visit. We were chauffeured for tips by Matt Cooney and Alfonza “The Rev” Scott in the hotel’s black Audi sedan. They drove us to museums, restaurants and past the enclaves of the rich and famous. In Highland Park, The Rev pointed out the homes of the Dallas Cowboys' Jerry Jones and Troy Aikman along with the family compound of the Hunts, oil and gas tycoons.
The Dallas Museum of Art’s “Cartier and Islam” exhibit (until Sept. 18) attracted an older crowd; the nearby Perot Museum of Nature and Science was a powerful whirlpool of kids’ groups ricocheting from the Tyrannosaurus Rex to the oil fracking exhibit. Watch your shins.
A Geogia O'Keeffe oil painting called "Ranchos Church, New Mexico" at the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art. (Rich Oppel)
For us, the best museum was the Amon Carter Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, a 50-minute, madcap drive away via a 75 mph toll lane along I-30. Don’t try it during rush hour. The Carter has an exquisite collection of Remington paintings and sculptures and an excellent array of 19th and 20th-century paintings as well. Pick one museum? The Amon Carter. Peaceful, beautiful, uncrowded, free admission and small enough to manage in two hours.
The Fort Worth Stockyards, a place of history (with a dab of schmaltz), fun and good shopping, filled one of our mornings. The 98 acres brand the city as Cowboy Town, with a rodeo and a twice-daily (11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.) cattle drive. We shopped for boots, drank coffee and watched the “herd” of 18 longhorns. So languid was their progress that if this were a real market drive the beef would have been very tough and leathery before it hit the steakhouse dinner plate.
The cattle drive at the Fort Worth Stockyards. (Rich Oppel)
But we could identify: the temperature was 97. “I saw a dog chasing a cat today,” said the emcee, deploying a very old joke. “It was so hot that both were walking.”
With limited time, we chose three very different restaurants:
- Nobu, in the Crescent Court Hotel; Jia, a modern Chinese restaurant in Highland Park; and Joe T. Garcia’s in Fort Worth. Nobu’s exotic Japanese menu set us back $480, with tip, for four (we had a guest), but it was worth it.
- Jia was an ordinary suburban strip mall restaurant, but with good food and a reasonable tab of $110 for four.
- Joe T.’s is an 85-year-old Fort Worth institution (think Matt’s El Rancho but larger), a fine Mexican restaurant where a meal with two drinks was $115.
Sushi at high-end restaurant Nobu. (Crescent Hotel)
It was all a splurge for a grandchild’s visit. Now we will get back to our ordinary road trips of Hampton Inns, where a room rate is closer to the Crescent Court’s overnight parking rate of $52. And to corner cafes in small towns.
Did Dallas change our 15-year-old’s view of Texas? “Yes. I think it’s a lot cooler than I did. The fashion, the food.” So, not only Austin is cool. Take Texas as a whole. It’s a big, complex, diverse and wonderful state.
Giga Texas, the massive Tesla factory in southeast Travis County is getting even bigger.
The company filed with the city of Austin this week to expand its headquarters with a new 500,000-square-foot building. The permit application notes “GA 2 and 3 expansion,” which indicates the company will make two general assembly lines in the building.
More details about the plans for the building are unclear. The gigafactory has been focused on Model Y production since it opened in April, but the company is also aiming for Cybertruck production to kick off in mid-2023.
While there is room for expansion on the 3.3 square miles of land Tesla has, this move comes after CEO Elon Musk’s recent comments about the state of the economy and its impact on Tesla.
In a May interview with Tesla Owners Silicon Valley, Musk said the gigafactories in Berlin and Austin are “gigantic money furnaces” and said Giga Texas had manufactured only a small number of cars.
And in June, Musk sent a company wide email saying Tesla will be reducing salaried headcount by 10%, then later tweeted salaried headcount should be fairly flat.
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