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Austin Stumbled In Handling COVID-19 Among Latinos. A New Report Highlights Efforts To Address That.

A sign tells Spanish speakers to dial 211 for information about the coronavirus.
Gabriel C. Pérez

Lee esta historia en español.

A report from Austin Public Health out Friday examines the city and county response to COVID-19 among Latinos – a population that's been, by far, the hardest hit by the pandemic.

The latest numbers from Austin Public Health bear that out: Latinos represent 52% of hospitalizations linked to the coronavirus.

Credit Austin Public Health

Latinos who've been tested for the virus at APH testing sites are four times more likely to test positive than white Austinites, but Latinos represent just over a third of the population overall.

Credit Austin Public Health

Grassroots organizations in the Latino community criticized the city's initially staggered response to that disparity. In May, the Austin Latino Coalition argued the City of Austin and APH should have responded more proactively. APH's top doctor, Dr. Mark Escott, admitted the health authority had expected to see the disparity – even in the early days of the pandemic – as many Latinos live in multigenerational homes, work in high-risk industries or frontline jobs, and are more likely to be uninsured.

In response to the criticism, the city and APH convened a task force to come up with a plan.

The new report outlines efforts to reduce the spread and increase awareness of COVID-19 among Latino communities, as well as efforts to support people who've been struggling financially because of the pandemic.

Overall, it suggests there's more work to do, but points out specific areas in which progress has been made – specifically in the areas of testing, contact tracing and Spanish-language communication.

That last bit has been a stumbling block, though the report touts the city's partnership with Univisión to host a town hall on COVID-19 and its effects on Latinos – specifically those working in the construction industry. APH says it also put on a Spanish-language Q&A about COVID-19 that had an audience of 50,000. Of those 50,000 people, nearly 850 reached out for assistance.

On top of that, the report says, the city has sent out 50,000 informational flyers in English and Spanish to households in the Eastern Crescent, which includes 78744 – the Southeast Austin ZIP code that's been hardest hit by the pandemic and has a population that's more than three-quarters Latino.

As for contact tracing, the agency plans to hire four more Spanish-speaking contact-tracers by the end of the month. Of the 51 contact-tracers working right now, the report says, 19 speak Spanish. Community Care hired five contract-tracers who speak Spanish and UT Dell Medical School has Spanish-speaking contact-tracers as well. 

But the report also admits the city and APH are relying heavily on community groups like Go Austin Vamos Austin (GAVA), PODER, Austin Voices and the Austin Latino Coalition for outreach and the distribution of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Paul Saldaña, a former Austin ISD School Board trustee with the Austin Latino Coalition, told KUT this week that he's appreciative of the city's efforts to address the disparities, but that the city could do better communicating the risk of COVID-19 – and providing resources like PPE to the community. 

He's organized a handful of pop-up testing and PPE distribution events both with and without the city in the past few months. All have taken place on weekends, Saldaña says, because many Latinos work during most testing sites' operating hours.

He says he's also had to fight to get PPE from the city, and that he's had to go to the private sector to solicit donations for N-95 masks.

"I'm born and raised here in Austin. I talk about – many times –how often I feel like we're living in a third-world country. I can only speak for myself, but I'm talking to other Latinos. We feel like we've been made second-class citizens in Austin, Texas, because of what we're having to do," he said, "whether it's begging and pleading for PPE supplies from the cities or volunteering of our own accord."

Saldaña says he does give the city "kudos," however, for its distribution of economic relief through the city's RISE Fund, a program that helps people who've lost wages as a result of COVID-19. 

APH's report says 80% of clients seeking RISE Fund money have identified as Hispanic. This week the Austin City Council OK'd contracts to Spanish-speaking nonprofits to dole out a second round of relief money. 

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
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