Six months into vaccine rollout, Travis County still seeing wide racial disparities compared to state
More than 55% of Travis County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated, compared to less than 45% of Texas residents 12 and older, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Despite outperforming the state in terms of overall vaccination rates, the county is reporting starker disparities across its demographic groups.
Black residents, who make up nearly 9% of the Travis County population, account for only 3.6% of Travis County residents who are fully vaccinated. Black residents make up 12.9% of the Texas population and 7.55% of fully vaccinated Texans.
Latino residents, who make up around one-third of the Travis County population, account for only one-fifth of Travis County residents who are fully vaccinated. The difference is less stark statewide: Latino residents make up 39.7% of the Texas population and 30.94% of fully vaccinated Texans.
Asian residents make up roughly equal shares of the county population and those vaccinated: 7.4% and 8%, respectively. The same is true for white residents, who make up 49% of the county population and 46% of those vaccinated.
Community leaders in the Black and Latino communities have been advocating for more equitable access to vaccines since before the rollout began last December. Austin Public Health has been offering pop-up community vaccine clinics and working with local business partners to make sure the hardest-hit communities can get time off to go get vaccinated.
But still, it's been a lasting issue. "We were 1st to be infected & last to receive equitable access to vaccines," Austin Latino Coalition member Paul Saldaña tweeted Tuesday in reference to the county's disparate vaccine rates. He has criticized Austin Public Health and local elected officials for not doing enough throughout the pandemic to address these inequities.
Similar issues arose during the testing rollout earlier in the pandemic, and Black and Latino residents have been disproportionately likely to be hospitalized with or die from COVID, according to Austin Public Health data.
"At this point in the fight against COVID we are using a very intentional outreach strategy to make sure that our communities of color, who have been hardest hit by this disease, but still have the lowest rates of vaccine uptake, are not only getting equitable access to vaccine … but also we are working in a way that supports and incentivizes them to get vaccine," Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said during a press conference last week.
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Austin's Delta 8 industry has been turned on its head after Texas health officials clarified that the cannabinoid is on the state list of illegal substances, though it was previously believed to be legal by most retailers, consumers and manufacturers.
House Bill 1325, which was signed in June 2019 by Gov. Greg Abbott, and the Farm Bill, signed into law by former President Donald Trump in 2018, legalized any hemp product containing less than .3% THC. The same bills were thought to have made Delta 8 legal, though the Texas Department of State Health Services added a notice on its website saying it was still a controlled substance as of Friday, Oct. 15.
Both the federal and state governments keep separate lists on what is considered a controlled substance. Marijuana is considered Schedule I, a category reserved for substances with "no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse," both statewide and federally.
Austin-based CBD retailer Grassroots Harvest CEO Kemal Whyte, like many CBD shop retailers, was blindsided by the announcement. Many small businesses rely on Delta 8 for their sales—Green Herbal Care CBD said about 90% of its sales come from Delta 8—and Whyte said he is frustrated by the inconsistencies in the drug scheduling system.
Since 87% of Texans support the legalization of marijuana, at least for medical use, per a recent poll, Whyte said he wonders who this legislation is for.
"It's gonna have a massive impact on small businesses—there's just no way around it," Whyte said. "The reality is, we don't want to push out anything bad for our customers, we want this to benefit our customers and to help them. If we can make money while doing it, that's the American dream. What are we doing, whose benefit is this for?"
Delta 8 surged in popularity after the perceived legalization—consumers enjoyed its lower psychotropic potency, decreased anxiety while using it and the peace of mind as a legal way to get high. So in order to protect their products and livelihoods, both Grassroots Harvest and Austin-based manufacturer Hometown Heroes are taking legal action.
Whyte said Grassroots Harvest is suing DSHS, saying their action is creating negative effects in the market. Meanwhile, a Hometown Heroes spokesperson said the company is in the process of filing a temporary restraining order that would pause the ban on Delta-8 in the state of Texas.
Threats against Delta 8 are not new—DSHS lost a lawsuit trying to make "smokable hemp products" illegal last year and Texas lawmakers had been considering a bill that would make Delta 8 illegal, though it was dropped after the clarification was made.
Hometown Heroes released a formal statement in response to the DSHS rule.
"I need to be clear—we love Texas, we're just choosing to fight for the will of the people in regards to cannabis in Texas," Hometown Hero CEO Lukas Gilkey said in a statement. "(Texas DSHS) are using backhanded ways to create legislation and go against the will of the people."
Whyte laments the fact that it would be easier legally to "open up a strip club that also sells guns," and said he can't post customer testimonials that mention the benefits of Delta 8 without getting hit with a cease and desist from the Food and Drug Administration. Whyte said he isn't opposed to regulation—far from it—he just wants to see it go through the correct channels.
"The fact that they're stunting our ability to communicate with our clients that want to learn about this, you're preventing us from communicating with them and teaching them, or spreading information that we know," Whyte said. "I think that that in and of itself opens up a lot of questions."
Grassroots Harvest still has Delta 8 products on its shelves for the time being but for how long, Whyte doesn't know.
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Austin Public Health and other clinics around Austin are now providing booster shots for all three vaccines, including Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson, to fully vaccinated individuals after both Pfizer and J & J were approved by the CDC on Wednesday.
APH and Austin clinics, which were already administering the approved Pfizer booster, will begin distributing shots as soon as Friday.
Those who received the second dose of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine more than six months ago are elligble to receive a booster if they are over 65 or if they are over 18 and:
- Live in a long-term care environment
- Have underlying medical conditions
- Work or live in high-risk settings, such as schools, hospitals or correctional facilities
Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a media Q&A Friday that APH is encouraging boosters just as much as they have urged residents to get their first and second doses.
"Boosters are incredibly important to keeping our community protected and hospitalizations low," Walkes said. "If we can stay on top of our vaccinations, we provide protections for our most vulnerable and make it that much harder for COVID to spread in our community."
Eligible residents are free to choose the same booster as their first doses or "mix and match," per the CDC announcement.
Those looking for another dose can simply bring their vaccination card to APH centers or the dozens of Walgreens and CVS locations in the metro, which began administering doses Friday.
Additional updated guidance from the CDC allows for all eligible individuals to choose which vaccine they receive as a "mix-and-match" booster dose. It is advised to remember to bring your CDC COVID-19 Vaccination Card showing the original doses with you when going for booster shots.
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