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.
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Republic Square Park has turned into a Ford-themed fiesta for its Built to Connect pop-up experience, complete with test drives, off-roading and an inside look at the Tesla-rivaling electric vehicles that the motor vehicle company is planning to integrate over the next decade.
The outdoor driving event is free, open to the public and will stay in the park from now until Oct. 24, offering rides on Bronco Mountain, a 0-40 mph zip in the 2022 all-electric Ford F-150 Lightning and a chance to win an original Ford Bronco.
The event kicked off with a panel of speakers, including Austin Director of Transportation Rob Spillar, Ford General Manager Darren Palmer and engineering specialists discussing Ford's goals to make it so that 50% of the vehicles on the road are electric by 2030.
As an eco-conscious city, Spillar said that around 4,000 vehicles, or 22% of the Texas electric vehicle market, as well as over 15,000 plugins lie in Austin, meaning driving electric just got accessible.
"Austin, as you know, is a fast-growing modern city that is committed to protecting the long term health and viability of our communities and strategies that reduce greenhouse gases, mitigate the effects of climate change and improve the drone quality of life here in Central Texas for all of our residents," Spillar said.
And Ford's electric vehicles are putting up some steep competition for newly-Austin-based company Tesla. The new electric Mustang Mach-E and F-150 Lighting offer amenities that used to be exclusive to Musk's brand, such as the BlueCruise self-driving network. The cars also boast a 300-mile range on a single charge, assisted reverse technology and access to the biggest charging network outside of the home.
Plus, Ford's got affordability on its side. The F-150 Lightning starts at $39,974 and the Mustang Mach-E starts at $42,895, while the cheapest Tesla model, the Model 3, starts at $41,990 and averages 262 miles on a single charge.
Speaking of price, the numbers on the electric vehicles may look like a little more than you'd like to pay for your transport, but Palmer promises it will pay off. In addition to a $7,500 tax credit you can earn for your sustainability, you'll never have to buy a pricey tank of gas again.
"Personally, I have not found one customer ever, who would go back to gas so that says something," Palmer said. "I realized, at $51,000, that car outruns every childhood hero car I ever had."
Texas buyers: take note. The Ford Lightning can power your house for three to 10 days, just in case the statewide power grid fails. You can take it glamping with you, so you don't have to leave the comfort of modern life behind, and in a pinch, Palmer said he's even seen a wedding party powered by the truck.
Ford is investing $30 billion into the U.S. market to meet demand by 2025 and the new electric truck already has over 150,000 reservations.
"I think they're going to take off much faster than you expect—they're going to be extremely, extremely popular next year," Palmer said. "With the incentives that are available today, this is starting to become more mainstream and viable for more and more families. We couldn't have done that before, we didn't have the technology, or the technology at that price."
The event is ongoing through next weekend from 12-9 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.- 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
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The Austin Police Department is searching for a man who is believed to be behind a series of robberies that is "sexual in nature and is escalating."
Three robbery cases that took place in North Austin within a 30-day period are being investigated by police, who report the victims all had similar descriptions for suspects in the case. The suspect is described as a 20-25-year-old Spanish-speaking Hispanic man, approximately 5'3, thin build, recently shaved with black hair. Police say he is known to typically wear athletic clothing and used a knife on each of the victims.
Here's a breakdown of the cases:
1. At 7:56 a.m. on Sept. 22 at the 1600 block of Rutland Drive, a woman was walking alone and returning from her child's school when a suspect walking by inappropriately touched her. The suspect then grabbed her by the arm, threatened her with a knife and demanded "her property."
2. At 8:10 a.m. on Oct. 11 at 1700 block of Colony Creek Drive, a woman was walking to her child's school when a man approached her with a knife and then demanded her personal items. The suspect then said he would return the items in return for sex.
3. At 11:03 a.m. on Oct. 13 at the 9300 block of Northgate Boulevard, a woman was with her child in the laundry room of an apartment complex when a man walked in performing a sexual act. The suspect demanded personal items from the victim, threatening to hurt the victim and take her child.
Police cautioned the public to walk without earbuds, stay alert and report suspicious activity to the police.
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