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COVID-19

CommUnityCare Begins Vaccinating Older Patients And Those With Chronic Medical Conditions Against COVID-19

CommUnityCare.jpg
Miguel Gutierrez Jr. for KUT

CommUnityCare, the network of federally qualified health centers funded by Travis County’s health care district, began vaccinating people 65 and older and those with chronic medical conditions against COVID-19 on Thursday. But, Central Health warns, the network doesn’t have enough doses yet to vaccinate all patients in this group.

CommUnityCare is vaccinating a small number of patients by appointment only at its Rosewood-Zaragosa Health Center in East Austin, which it temporarily reopened to serve as a vaccination site.

COVID-19 vaccines are limited in Travis County – and statewide. The Austin area was set to receive 59,825 doses in the first three weeks of distribution; there are more than 1 million residents in Travis County. CommUnityCare, which serves low-income and uninsured residents, has received 2,100 vaccines so far. Its patient population is upwards of 120,000.

“CommUnityCare is eager to get more vaccines,” Jaeson Fournier, CEO of CommUnityCare, said in a press release. “We want to get our patients and most vulnerable residents vaccinated as quickly as possible.”

Texas has been distributing vaccines to providers – pharmacies, hospitals, medical clinics and doctor’s offices – and setting guidelines for who can get the vaccine first. CommUnityCare says it has registered all of its sites to receive and administer the vaccine.

So far, Texas has authorized providers to give the vaccine to two groups: health care workers and first responders (phase 1A), and people 65 and older and those over 16 with underlying health conditions that could lead to complications from COVID-19 (phase 1B). Health officials told vaccine providers they could begin distributing to phase 1B last week, but many didn’t have enough vaccines to do so.

Local leaders have been frustrated by the state’s vaccine distribution process, since most pharmacies, clinics and hospitals in Travis County exist on the West Side, making it more difficult for residents in Eastern Travis County, home to many of the area’s communities of color, to access the vaccine. Residents have been calling on Central Health to put more health centers on the East Side for years.

Throughout the pandemic, Central Health and CommUnityCare have set up mobile COVID-19 testing sites in Eastern Travis County to address the need in the area.

Mike Geeslin, Central Health president and CEO, says Central Health and CommUnityCare are working with Austin Public Health to open large-scale vaccination sites “as quickly as possible” to serve low-income residents and those who lack health insurance.

“While we cannot control vaccine supply, we can advocate for equitable distribution as we get more vaccines,” Geeslin said in a press release. “We are focused on people in ZIP codes hit hardest by the pandemic – including Latino and African American populations disproportionately affected by COVID-19.”

While vaccines slowly trickle out, CommUnityCare is also taking advantage of a new COVID-19 treatment center that opened Wednesday in Southeast Austin. The center, established through a partnership between Austin, Travis County, the Texas Department of Emergency Management and others, treats infected people with monoclonal antibody infusions, a potentially life-saving treatment.

The Food and Drug Administration authorized the treatment late last year. It has been shown to help reduce COVID-19 hospitalizations, which have reached record highs in the Austin area this week.

The infusion center, located at Central Health's Southeast Health & Wellness Center on Montopolis Drive, is serving 20 people per day and has the ability to expand to 40.

CommUnityCare and Austin Public Health have started referring qualifying patients to the center, according to Central Health. To be eligible, patients have to meet “very specific criteria” set by the state. APH and CommUnityCare are identifying eligible patients through their testing sites.

Got a tip? Email Marisa Charpentier at mcharpentier@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.

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