Black Austinites have been hit hard by the pandemic, and the 'fight' continues for equitable vaccine distribution
Black Austinites are overrepresented among confirmed COVID-19 cases, related hospitalizations and deaths relative to their share of the local population. Recently released demographic data shows that hey are also disproportionately represented among COVID-19 vaccine recipients—but in this case, they account for less than their share of the population.
"The health disparities basically come down to racism, unfortunately," said Dr. Jeff Hutchinson, a board member of the Austin Black Physicians Association, citing unequal access to health care and increased exposure to pollutants among people of color.
The supply chain
Almost since the pandemic began, communities of color have been more severely impacted than the general population. Black residents, who make up 7.6% of the city of Austin's population, account for 10% of COVID deaths in Travis County and 11.6% of COVID-related hospitalizations in the five-county Austin metro, according to data from Austin Public Health.
Community leaders and local elected officials, concerned about inequities, pushed for demographic data on who was receiving the COVID-19 vaccine. When APH debuted a new dashboard on Monday with this information, it seemed to validate them: only 4% of APH vaccine recipients have been Black.
Many factors contribute to these disparities.
First, there is not enough vaccine to meet demand. "We have very limited resources," said Dr. Kazique Prince, interim executive director of the Central Texas Collective for Racial Equity. "When you have limited resources, the people who tend to get them are more advantaged."
Second, vaccine providers have been largely concentrated on Austin's west side, even though the most affected ZIP codes are on or straddle the east side. The advent of the hub provider system, which has designated Austin Public Health as a major local provider, has helped address this disparity in recent weeks. But another concern is that most providers, hubs included, rely on online registration systems, which may be inaccessible to Austinites without personal computers or the spare time to spend refreshing a webpage in the hopes of securing an appointment.
(Texas Department of State Health Services)
In response, local Black elected officials including Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion demanded changes to the local vaccine rollout, including pop-up distribution events at community centers, such as fire stations and schools. "We will not tolerate a hands-off vaccine strategy that ends the pandemic quickly for the privileged while letting it linger indefinitely among our most marginalized constituents," they said in a statement last month.
Dr. Dennis Andrulis, senior research scientist at the Texas Health Institute and an associate professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health, said such a strategy could help counterbalance the prevalence of providers in other parts of town—and would help make inroads with the vulnerable communities most at risk due to the pandemic. "Trust is a critical, critical element of whatever success we're going to have," Andrulis said.
Building such partnerships now is critical to ensure these disparities don't plague the rest of the distribution process. "As this rollout of the vaccine increases and we do get a higher volume of vaccines available, we need to have this infrastructure in place," Prince said.
A third challenge is effective communication.
Local public health officials are contending with language barriers, conspiracy theorists and mixed messages. For example, state health officials expanded access to the second-tier priority group—which includes the elderly and individuals with a chronic medical condition—before they had enough supply to vaccinate the top-tier group.
More recently, Dallas County officials had to discard a distribution plan that prioritized communities of color after the state threatened to reduce the local health department's weekly allocation. APH officials had initially said it would prioritize communities of color in its own distribution efforts, but the department's latest eligibility flowchart heeds closely to the state's recommended priority groups: long-term care facility workers and residents, designated essential caregivers, people 65 years of age and older, and those with a medical condition.
"We as a region are fighting this fight with one hand tied behind our back," Prince said.
Black Americans also report higher rates of vaccine hesitancy, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, which makes effective communication even more important.
Although there is a long history of medical racism, including the Tuskegee syphilis study, Black people may be skeptical of the COVID-19 vaccine because of their own personal experiences with the medical profession. "Black people in general … feel that the care that they get is not always the same that other people get," Hutchinson said, pointing to racial disparities in pain management and COVID treatment.
One way to address these concerns is to acknowledge them. "We in the health care community have to learn to listen to what people's concerns are before jumping in and telling them that they're wrong," he added.
Despite the myriad challenges, Andrulis and Prince expressed hope that an equitable rollout is possible.
"My feeling is you've got an administration now that will address the spectrum of need on vaccine uptake," Andrulis. "I think it's time to reinvigorate efforts. I don't think it's too late."
Prince is confident that APH officials and other local leaders are up to the task—and that in tackling it they may also make inroads in addressing health disparities that long predate the pandemic.
"That's my hope," he said.
- Everything we know about Austin's COVID vaccine rollout - austonia ›
- Austin healthcare offering COVID-19 vaccine waitlists - austonia ›
- Inequities in healthcare for Latino and Black communities becomes ... ›
- Austin doctors face COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy head on with J&J pause - austonia ›
- Travis County vaccine equity gap widens compared to Texas - austonia ›
A $500 million mixed-use development spanning 1,400 acres is coming to Southeast Austin, near Tesla’s headquarters at Giga Texas.
Plans for the development by Houston-based real estate firm Hines include 2,500 houses along with multi-family and townhomes, and commercial land. Hines is partnering with Trez Capital, Sumitomo Forestry and Texas-based Caravel Ventures.
The development, which is known as Mirador, will be located off the 130 Toll and Highway 71, which the developers say provides easy access to the Circuit of the Americas Formula 1 racetrack and other Austin attractions like restaurants, parks and live music venues.
Hines also boasts amenities like a 60-acre lake, over 600 acres of greenbelt, community parks, trails and a swimming pool.
“As Austin continues to grow into the tech epicenter of Texas, coupled with a supply-constrained market, the demand for new housing is at its highest,” Dustin Davidson, managing director at Hines, said. “Mirador will be critical in providing more options for Austin’s growing population and we are excited to work alongside our partners given they each provide a unique and valued perspective in single-family development.”
The local housing market has been hot in recent years, with home sales accelerating earlier in the pandemic. In July 2021, the Austin metro area hit its pricing peak at $478,000. As Austonia previously reported, the area has been expected to see the Tesla effect, with the new workforce driving up demand for housing and other services.
The single-family houses are expected to be developed over the course of six years, in phases. Construction on the homes is expected to start this year and home sales will begin in 2023.
- Real Estate - austonia ›
- Luxury real estate to get special tax status under 'blight' statute in ... ›
- Austin sees record-breaking real estate year in 2021 - austonia ›
- What billionaires like Elon Musk look for in Austin real estate - austonia ›
- Austin luxury real estate market booms in pandemic - austonia ›
- What $10 million (or more) can get you in Austin real estate right now ›
- Austin's housing market is hot, but buyers feel burned out - austonia ›
- Fall breeze begins cooling Austin housing market ›
Editor's note: This story summarizes Sports Illustrated's story detailing Michael Center's involvement in the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal, based on interviews with SI's Jon Wertheim. Additionally, Austonia received comments from Michael Center, included in this story.
Confined to his couch, former Longhorns tennis coach Michael Center praised his players via FaceTime after the program he built produced the Longhorns’ first national championship in 2019—a bittersweet moment as Center faced federal charges as part of the Varsity Blues college admissions scandal.
His name dragged through the mud, Center was fired, arrested by the FBI and sentenced to six months in a Central Texas federal prison after pleading guilty to two charges related to mail fraud. And over a year after his release, Center told Sports Illustrated he doubts he was the only one in burnt orange involved.
When the Varsity Blues scandal broke out to the public in 2019, the investigation was a perfect storm for nationwide attention: Hollywood glamour, blue blood conspiracy and faith in the tried-and-true American education system came to a head as 33 movie stars and other elites were found guilty of paying more than $25 million to pave their children’s way into eight colleges, including the University of Texas.
UT was one of eight schools caught in the college admissions scandal. (Laura Figi/Austonia)
The figure behind Varsity Blues, “college consultant” Rick Singer, would plead guilty to four felony counts for faking SAT scores and bribing coaches at prominent universities for his elite clients—but not before throwing Center under the bus.
Singer's client, private equity executive Chris Schaepe, was looking for a way to bend UT's tight admissions policies for his son, who was seeking a position oddly as a manager on UT’s basketball team. Through a middleman, Singer contacted Center, who eventually agreed.
Schaepe's son hadn't played tennis since his freshman year of high school. It was a detail that Center says passed through plenty of hands before he was admitted, including "academic support staff, the compliance office, the sports supervisor and, ultimately, the athletic director," SI's Jon Wertheim writes.
No one in the entire athletic department, including seven "risk management and compliant services department" employees, was named, implicated or punished. After an internal investigation, Center was the only one named in the Varsity Blues "subterfuge" in a September 2019 UT news release signed by the university president.
He told Austonia he was never contacted by the university during the investigation, and when the NCAA interviewed him for its investigation, he says it cleared him of any violations.
“I almost fell out of my chair,” Center said. “I literally couldn’t breathe. There’s no college coach in America—much less at a state school, much less a coach of a nonrevenue sport—who can admit an athlete without consulting other people in the athletic department. What they were asking people to believe, it’s just impossible.” SI said Center's assertion was backed by multiple UT coaches and administrators at other schools.But why would the Forty Acres be complicit?
Center said UT’s then newly named athletic director Steve Patterson made clear that Center suddenly was responsible for more than building a successful tennis program. He was to be a "fundraiser first and coach second" and he would need to find donors to fund a new tennis facility. Patterson admitted to SI that he wanted his coaches to find donors and said the department was "$15 million in the red" when he started in 2013, though he denies any knowledge of the false tennis recruitment.
Center said he knew he would be "considered a team player" if he let in the son of a Silicon Valley magnate. And sure enough, Schaepe immediately began pulling out his wallet, donating $100,000 to UT tennis and a six-figure check to the school's communication program.
"I never entered this as a way to profit. This was a fundraising mission where I made a terrible mistake at the end,"
Months after Schaepe's son was admitted, Center agreed to meet Singer at the Austin airport and found himself accepting a backpack filled with $60,000 in cash meant for him, personally. He said he immediately knew he had made a mistake. He told SI “I put the money in my basement and gave most of it away.”
“Why did I do it?” Center told Sports Illustrated. "I go to bed and wake up each day asking myself the same question. I had to convince myself that I somehow deserved the money."
Once in court, Center showed texts with UT's compliance official and mentioned Chris Plonsky, a department executive involved in "overseeing men’s tennis, compliance, academic support (which generates letters of intent) and the Longhorn Foundation," according to SI.
“I knew I had to answer for my guilt,” Center said. “But I was like, 'Man, schools are going to get hammered.'"'
INMATE 77806-112 but out on Sunday: Actor Felicity Huffman in prison uniform outside low-security Federal Correctional Institution in Dublin to visit actor husband William H. Macy & their daughter. Huffman admitted to paying $15K to have fixer boost daughter’s SAT score. 📸: @TMZ pic.twitter.com/9jALmqnA0U
— Henry K. Lee (@henrykleeKTVU) October 21, 2019
But Center was the only Longhorn to go down for the crimes. “I was no rogue actor,” Center said. “And this wasn’t my word against their word. There were signatures that went along with it. That’s the system... There wasn’t one point in the process where I thought people wanted to learn the whole truth.”
Back at home in Austin, Center watched as actress Felicity Huffman served just eleven days for her part in the scandal. Some served up to five months; others simply paid a fine, and others, like Singer, await sentencing.
And because the prosecution chose to blame individual coaches, framing schools as victims in the case, universities like UT have received less than a slap on the wrist for their possible involvement.
“I was always taught that actions have consequences,” Center said. “What I’ve come to realize is that, yes, for some people actions absolutely do have consequences. Serious, heavy ones. For others, actions can have no consequences at all.”
- Excitement, tensions build as Austin expects 18k fans at first Texas ... ›
- $10 million Austin NIL scholarship fund to help Longhorn athletes ... ›
- UT plans on Longhorns football in fall 2020 - austonia ›
- UT is going SEC! Texas board of regents approves move to future ... ›
- Former UT tennis coach Michael Center in halfway house after ... ›
- Former UT tennis coach Michael Center completes 6-month ... ›