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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The Food and Drug Administration will consider Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine application for emergency use authorization in 5-to-11-year-olds on Tuesday. The vaccine will likely be available to kids starting next week.
With 2.9 million Texas children in this age group, state health officials say this is a "big factor" in reducing the virality of COVID. At a Monday press conference, the Texas Department of State Health Services released info on the rollout efforts of the vaccine for children.
Here are some of the answers to your questions.
When and where will it be available?St. David's Healthcare staff unpack the first few shipments of its initial supply of the COVID-19 vaccine on Thursday.(St. David's Healthcare)
Assuming the FDA approves this version of the Pfizer vaccine this week, vaccines will start shipping out almost immediately with the first vaccines for children likely available next week.
DSHS has already put in an order of vaccines under the federal government's "pre-order prior to launch" program.
COVID vaccine providers will begin receiving those first shipments 1-5 days after the approval. After Monday night, DSHS will have put in three different orders for vaccines. The second shipment will arrive 3-7 days after approval and the third shipment will take place 5-9 days after the approval.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention will meet on Nov. 2 and Nov. 3 to discuss best practices for administration, allowing for the first shots to be administered after.
The state will be allocated 1.3 million doses across 814 providers in 120 counties. Individual county allocations have not been released but each county got to send a request for how many doses they may need. Federal retail pharmacies, such as H-E-B and Walgreens, are getting their own shipments.
The health department advises using its vaccine finder tool to find the nearest vaccine provider near you.
How is this version of the vaccine different than the first one?Abbott says COVID vaccine to be available to other groups by end of March
The COVID vaccine for 5-11-year-olds is one-third of the dosage of the current vaccine available to those 12 years of age and older.
It is being identified as the orange cap vaccine, unlike the current purple cap. The purple cap vaccine cannot be administered to younger kids, according to the state health department.
And like the current vaccine, it is 95% effective. The first and second doses are the same and will be advised to be taken 21 days apart.
What are the side effects for children?
During clinical trials, it was reported that some kids in this age group felt pain at the injection site, fatigue and headaches.
The data submitted to the FDA shows no serious complications, such as cases of myocarditis inflammation of the heart muscle, or pericarditis, inflammation of the outer lining of the heart—rare complications that have been reported among young boys and men receiving the vaccine in other trials.
How will this affect herd immunity?
With so many children across the state, DSHS said "we need to have as many people vaccinated as possible."
State health officials said the herd immunity threshold is still being looked into, but with 3 million children soon to be able to get the vaccine, it will be a big factor in reducing the viral load in the state.
"Until we're able to add all the children, we'll see a bigger wave in stamping down the pandemic," DSHS' Imelda Garcia said during the conference.
Of those 12 and older, 72% are fully vaccinated in Travis County as of Monday.
I'm not sure if my child needs this vaccine. Why should I have them get it?
DSHS says this vaccine is important for young kids because it will protect the older population and others around them as well as themselves. The department says to ask experts and doctors questions if you are hesitant so you can be confident with your decision.
Tesla is officially in with the big guns.
After Hertz Global Holdings Inc. placed an order of 100,000 Teslas—the biggest single electric car purchase ever—Tesla officially hit the $1 trillion market cap for the first time.
The trillion-dollar club has some big names, including Apple, Facebook and Amazon. With the purchase, Tesla's stock shot up to more than $1,045 a share by midday Monday, a new record after topping $900 a share just a day earlier.
The $4.2 billion deal is the biggest purchase of electric vehicles to date. Hertz said it will use the Teslas to round out their fleet of electric rental cars by 2022 just months after filing for bankruptcy protection.
The news came just days after Tesla followed its leader, CEO Elon Musk, and relocated its headquarters to Austin. Austin's Giga Texas plant, which is currently finishing construction, is set to begin producing Cybertruck models at the end of 2022 and will begin "volume production" by 2023, Musk said in the meeting.
Musk celebrated the stock market victory on Twitter.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) October 25, 2021
Shortly after moving to Austin, Tesla saw its best quarter yet with Q3 revenue coming in at $13.76 billion—up from $8.77 billion this time last year. It was the electric car companies' ninth straight profitable quarter.
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They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, right?
While Northwest Arkansas isn't exactly looking to be a breakfast taco-loving, live music-having tech hub, it is branding itself as the Austin of yesteryear. And who better to come to the quickly-growing paradise than Austinites themselves?
OZ Brands is the latest NW Arkansas organization to entice Austin residents to pack up and make the move. The company, which is named after the area's Ozark Mountains, promotes travel, trails and art within the region and is owned by Runway, a NW Arkansas business investment group. Runway is headed by Walmart founder Sam Walton's grandsons, Steuart and Tom Walton.
Oz is targeting Austinites with the "One Way Out" giveaway, a program that will give at least 10 Austinites a one-way Allegiant ticket from Austin to the Northwest Arkansas National Airport.
"Fall is the perfect time to visit and explore the natural beauty of the Ozarks," the program's website reads. "Why just one way, because once you're here, you won't want to leave!"
Why swap cosmopolitan Austin for NW Arkansas' forest-filled hideaway? Just like other local programs including the Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and the NW Arkansas Council, OZ Brands is looking to capitalize on priced-out Austinites who may not be pleased with the region's unprecedented growth.
"It's okay, Austin, we get it. You're tired of the tourists, the traffic, the hassle," the website says, escalating to an all-caps message reading, "YOU NEED A BREAK, AND WE ARE HERE TO GIVE IT TO YOU."
OZ is far from the first program to offer financial incentives to move to the area. Ads for Greater Bentonville began cropping up on the feeds of Austinites weeks ago as they promoted their annual tech summit, while the NW Arkansas Council rolled out similar ads. Instead of "Austin City Limits," the organizations promised "Bentonville City Limitless." If you "wish you'd bought in Austin 10 years ago," the Council promises that the area is perfect for you.
The Greater Bentonville Chamber of Commerce and NW Arkansas Council have both made moves to bring Austinites to the region. (Greater Bentonville)
Like similar programs in the past, One Way Out "is an opportunity for Austinites who no longer feel at home in their own city to see for themselves the value and qualities of Northwest Arkansas ... It's for those living in the Texas city who feel the growing pains of Austin expanding beyond its limits," the company said in a press release.
The region has recently experienced substantial growth, moving to fourth on the U.S. News and World Report's list of 150 Best Places to Live in the U.S. in 2021-2022 and enjoying an influx of businesses, tech workers and startups tired of the West Coast's crowds and priciness. And with a great arts and culture scene, a lower cost of living and even a financial incentive to move to the area, talents like film producer Kristin Mann decided it was time to swap Austin for sunnier skies in Arkansas.
"I love (Austin) how it is now, don't get me wrong, but I've always fantasized about what it might have been like before it really exploded," Mann said. "And I feel like that's similar here...There's something really unique about this town, and it feels like there's something really exciting happening here."
The contest ends Oct. 29 and is open to anyone 18 and older that lives within 50 miles of Austin. Winners must book their trip within four months of the competition and finish the trip by May 1, 2022.
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