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Austin Health Leaders Express Concern About Low Numbers Of Black And Hispanic Residents Getting COVID Vaccine

A health care worker gives a person a shot of Pfizer-BioNTech's COVID-19 vaccine.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Austin Public Health said it is working with community groups to get more Black and Hispanic residents vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Austin Public Health leaders say more work needs to be done to increase the number of Black and Hispanic residents who are getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“I cannot tell you how concerned I am about the data with the number of African Americans that have received the vaccine thus far, also the number of Hispanic people that have received the vaccine,” APH Director Stephanie Hayden-Howard said during a news conference Friday.

APH began publishing demographic data on its COVID-19 vaccine distributions earlier this week. According to the data, 3.4% of the vaccines have gone to Black people, even though Black residents make up more than 7% of Travis County’s population that is 65 and older.

About 17% of vaccines have gone to Hispanic individuals, and although that lines up with the percentage of Hispanic residents in the county’s 65+ population, officials say that’s not enough to counter the high levels of COVID-19 transmission among this demographic group.

Hayden-Howard said APH has started an “equity phone line” to reach people in these populations to help ensure they get vaccinated. She said APH is also working with leaders in the community and local organizations to help improve efforts.

“We know Austin Public Health cannot do this work alone,” she said.

APH has been working to expand its vaccine call center in recent weeks. It now has three operations: a nursing line, which takes incoming calls about vaccine registration (512-972-5560); an equity line, which is reaching out to Black and Hispanic populations; and a line established this week in partnership with Travis County that’s been reaching out to people 80 and older to help them sign up for a vaccine appointment.

About 70% of APH’s vaccines have gone to people 65 and older, according to Dr. Mark Escott, interim health authority for Austin-Travis County. That group is qualified to get the vaccine right now as part of phase 1B. They’re being prioritized because they have an increased risk of severe illness and hospitalization from the virus.

Escott said as hospital systems start to improve, it’ll be important to focus more efforts on vaccinating people under 65 who have underlying conditions. These individuals are also qualified for the vaccine under phase 1B.

The state hasn’t outlined who will be included in phase 1C of the vaccine rollout, but Escott said he expects the state will include essential workers in that group.

“I anticipate that somewhere around early March we may see a rollout of 1C as more people in the 1B group are vaccinated,” he said. “The federal strategy has been to do 1B and 1C in parallel. … I anticipate the state will follow suit similarly and not wait for 1B to be completed before moving on to 1C.”

Case numbers and hospitalizations have been going down in Austin-Travis County. The seven-day average of daily new cases fell below 300 on Thursday for the first time since early December.

Escott says cases are likely declining because people are masking and staying home as much as possible.

“I like to think this has a lot to do with our community responding to the call for action,” he said. “We saw uncontrolled surge in December and January to the point where our hospitals were overflowing and we had to activate the alternate care site. I think that people in our community heard that message. I think they responded. I think they stayed home when they could.”

But Escott said it’s important to continue wearing masks and social distancing, especially now that a new, more contagious variant is present in the area.

“It’s important for us to decrease the spread of COVID-19 now more than ever to decrease the risk of the variant spreading and also to decrease the risk of new variants spreading,” he said. “Together we can get through this and certainly have a much brighter and happier summer this year than last.”

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

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Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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