Local Organizations Step Up To Expand Vaccine Access In East Austin
Michele Rountree had reservations about getting the COVID-19 vaccine at first.
But the more research she did, the better she began to feel. And when she heard the African American Youth Harvest Foundation was hosting a walk-in vaccine clinic, something clicked. She had known about the organization since she moved to Austin more than a decade ago, so she was convinced she should go ahead.
“It was that extension of respect and trust that opened up my motivation to show up,” said Rountree, a social work professor at UT Austin.
When she got to the clinic, her anxieties were alleviated even more. She saw people she knew. Organizers handed out water bottles to those waiting in line. People came by to help with registration and ask if anyone had questions.
“It felt like just a beautiful community connection, the right thing,” she said.
The clinic was a collaboration between the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, which provides resources to underserved youth and families, and the Central Texas Allied Health Institute, a health care college geared toward low-income students.
They received vaccines left over from a drive-thru distribution at Circuit of the Americas and set up a distribution of their own at the Harvest Foundation’s resource center in Northeast Austin on a Saturday last month. Vaccines were handed out on a first-come, first-served basis — no appointment required.
Community members have been calling for a more equitable distribution of vaccines since the rollout began in January. Most providers are located on the wealthier and whiter West Side of I-35. And though demographic data on vaccinations is incomplete, numbers from the state suggest Black and Hispanic residents — both groups that have been hit hardest by COVID-19 — are underrepresented among those who have been vaccinated in Travis County.
Organizations like the Harvest Foundation and the Allied Health Institute have been filling in the gaps.
“We need more vaccination hubs wherever the Black and brown folks are,” Michael Lofton, founder and CEO of the Harvest Foundation, said. “If you know this community has a higher [COVID rate], then you ought to practically have one on every corner or at every church and every clinic or at every drug store in this community.”
The location of vaccine providers is one barrier to access for East Travis County residents. Technology is another, said Jereka Thomas-Hockaday, co-founder of the Central Texas Allied Health Institute. Many vaccine providers require people to schedule an appointment online. Snagging a shot has often meant signing up on multiple online waitlists or refreshing web browsers for hours on end, hoping for appointments to open up.
“There are a ton of people who don't have access to internet,” Thomas-Hockaday said. “Anything outside of online is not hardly being utilized at all, and that's why you find folks not registering to get the vaccine, because it's too much of a hassle and they don't understand the process. They don't have access to the process. They just give up after a while.”
To reach people, Thomas-Hockaday and her team used social media and email, but they also turned to “old-school” techniques, like posting flyers at restaurants and calling churches and community centers to spread the word about vaccination opportunities.
Since the clinic didn’t require online sign-ups, people could just show up. The first 600 people who arrived got their first dose and were told to come back either April 17 or 24 for a second one.
On the same day as the walk-in clinic, the Allied Health Institute temporarily transformed its COVID-19 testing site at the Ana Lark Center in East Austin into a vaccine clinic. This distribution did require an appointment, but instead of going online to make one, people could simply call a phone number.
“On the flyer, we put a phone number and said, tell folks to call to get an appointment,” Thomas-Hockaday said. “That was super easy for people and so much better for us. And we had an intake person that was working the phone all day.”
The staff vaccinated another 600 people. And, Thomas-Hockaday said, the institute is still getting calls asking when it will have another event like this.
“For anyone to say that people don't want the vaccine in Black or brown communities, or there's hesitancies, I really have to push back very hard on that, because what we have been seeing is it's not lack of desire,” she said. “It's the lack of access and lack of information on how they can get it.”
The Harvest Foundation and the Allied Health Institute’s clinic was open to anyone, but it attracted many people of color, Lofton said, likely because the organizations running it were Black-led.
“I think there’s that cultural connectivity of comfort when you can come to a place where vaccines are conducted by people of color,” he said, noting the history of racism within the health care industry. “Sometimes you want to go where folks understand your lived experience and … share those same historical traumas.”
The clinic attracted Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP. He said he had called multiple vaccine providers to schedule an appointment, but never got a call back. So, when he heard about the walk-in opportunity at the Harvest Foundation, he decided to go there.
The event made him feel relaxed, he said, and organizers let attendees know everything would be OK.
"It’s amazing how many folks know each other on a friendship basis. Why not utilize that? We trust the folks that we know."Nelson Linder, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP
“The staff there were very pleasant and very culturally competent,” he said. “And that made a big difference.”
Linder said he feels more community-based organizations should be given the resources to help increase vaccine access in East Austin.
“It’s amazing how many folks know each other on a friendship basis. Why not utilize that?” he said. “We trust the folks that we know.”
The Allied Health Institute has been approved to be a vaccine provider, Thomas-Hockaday said. She said it is looking into hosting a couple walk-in clinics every week — perhaps one one evening each week and another every Saturday. Not requiring an appointment gives folks more flexibility, she said.
“You have to have flexibility,” she said. “It’s the same concept as voting. Your early voting is for people who work during the day or work on the weekends and don’t have the ability to do that one day.”
But while the institute has the ability to order vaccines, it needs money to be able to pay staff to administer them, she said. Many distributions, like the one at COTA, have relied on volunteers.
“I’m happy to see us volunteering,” Thomas-Hockaday said. “But these folks are providing a service to the community. They have a specialized skill and they should be compensated for that skill. You can ask a person to volunteer once. You can probably get them to do it twice. But when you're starting to ask folks to do the level of work that needs to be done to get everybody to that 85% herd immunity, you're talking about asking people to volunteer every weekend or every week.”
The Allied Health Institute is seeking out this funding, she said, and working with private organizations that have asked the institute to vaccinate their employees.
“I mean, honestly, to do what we want to do,” she said, “we really have to have our city and county officials sit down and talk to us and finalize plans and start writing some checks so that we can do the good work we need to do in the community.”
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