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Black Leaders In Travis County Call For Equity Amid 'Troubling' Rollout Of COVID-19 Vaccines

Medical Assistant Esmerelda Torres receives the COVID-19 vaccine Pfizer BioNTech during injections to healthcare workers at Dell Medical School on Dec. 15.
Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT News
Medical Assistant Esmerelda Torres receives the COVID-19 vaccine during injections to health care workers at Dell Medical School on Dec. 15.

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Several Black elected officials from Travis County are voicing concerns about unequal access to COVID-19 vaccines in Central Texas.

Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison and four other leaders released a statement Monday calling for an urgent need to vaccinate Black and Latino communities east of I-35, which have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19.

“This pandemic has cast a harsh light on the regional inequities that have gone unaddressed for far too long and now expand beyond Austin’s city limits,” the statement said. “In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, we’re once again seeing more signs of those inequities.”

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Manor Mayor Larry Wallace Jr., and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Mateyer joined Harper-Madison in drafting the statement.

The leaders argue that a lack of investment and development in Eastern Travis County over the years has left the area with few grocery stores, pharmacies and clinics. That means Eastern Travis County residents don’t have the same access to vaccine providers as their neighbors west of I-35.

“This is a major concern given that the Black and Latino communities within the [Eastern] Crescent are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and have seen disproportionately higher rates of death due to the illness,” the statement said.

Texas' supply of COVID-19 vaccines is limited, so the state is phasing out the distribution — a process that’s been filled with mixed messaging and technical errors. State officials aren’t administering the vaccines; instead, the state is allocating them to providers, like pharmacies, doctor’s offices, hospitals and clinics. Providers in Central Texas received their first shipments and began administering the vaccines in mid-December.

A map of vaccine providers created by the Texas Department of State Health Services shows most providers in Travis County sit west of I-35.

Texas Department of State Health Services

Harper-Madison and the four other officials who penned the statement are calling for “alternative vaccine tactics” to address this disparity, such as using fire stations and schools as “pop-up vaccination clinics.” One solution could be utilizing Huston-Tillotson University as a site for distribution, Harper-Madison told KUT.

“Knowing that we have an asset like Huston-Tillotson at 9th and Chicon on the East Side is a brilliant opportunity,” she said. “And that’s just one of many. … I think every publicly held piece of property, organization, institution should be looked at as an opportunity to build on for solutions.”

The elected officials also suggest prepping firefighters, paramedics and school nurses to help administer vaccines as the supply increases.

“As elected leaders, we recognize the powerful urgency of this moment and we are committed to bringing forward concrete solutions quickly,” the leaders wrote. “We will not tolerate a hands-off vaccination strategy that ends the pandemic quickly for the privileged while letting it linger indefinitely among our most marginalized constituents. This community can and must do better and we won’t rest until it does.”

Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
Dani Matias is a former producer and fill-in host for KUT's Morning Edition show.
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