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As Travis County Surpasses 1,000 COVID Deaths, Advocates Call For Equity In Vaccine Distribution

A health care worker conducts a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru site in South Austin in March.
Gabriel C. Pérez
A health care worker conducts a COVID-19 test at a drive-thru site in South Austin in March.

The number deaths linked to COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County surpassed 1,000 this week. Austin Public Health reported 23 new deaths Wednesday — the most reported in one day since the start of the pandemic. Eleven more were reported Thursday, bringing the area’s total to at least 1,015.

"With more cases comes more deaths and while symptoms may be insignificant to you, not wearing a mask, not social distancing, and not staying home when sick are contributing to the spread that will eventually reach a loved one who dies,” Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Desmar Walkes said in a press release. “We need to work together as individuals to survive as a community.”

Austin Public Health officials say August was the pandemic’s “most lethal month” since vaccines became available. Over the last couple months, the highly contagious delta variant has caused hospitalizations anddeaths to spike, particularly among the unvaccinated.

About half of the deaths — 502 — were people of Hispanic ethnicity, despite the fact the population makes up only about 32% of the area’s population.

Paul Saldaña with the Austin Latino Coalition said he wasn’t surprised by the news, as communities of color have been disproportionately affected by COVID from the start.

“When the delta variant hit, in particular, a lot of the hospitalizations were coming from ZIP codes where you have high numbers of Latinos and minorities, specifically on the Eastern Crescent,” he said.

Throughout the pandemic, the coalition has been working to address that impact by providing personal protection equipment, vaccine clinics and even through food drives.

The president of the Del Valle Community Coalition, which primarily serves Black and brown populations, said she feels there have been missteps with testing and vaccine rollouts, which she hopes officials can address moving forward.

“The amount of work that we’ve done, I feel, has made a significant impact in our community. Is it enough? No, but we are doing our part,” Susanna Ledesma-Woody said. “We wish that everybody else would do their parts to reach those numbers, to get people vaccinated and to slow the spread of COVID within our community.”

One thing they both agreed is a step in the right direction: a "distributive justice plan" for vaccines, PPE and testing.

Last month, District 2 Council Member Vanessa Fuentes put forward a resolution asking that the city apply lessons learned from previous vaccine rollouts to any future plans for administering booster shots or vaccines to those under 12.

Austin Public Health is "talking about using the same methods that they used for the first vaccine," Susanna Ledesma-Woody said, "and we know that those [vaccines went to] predominantly white, affluent people."

A little over 45% of people identifying as Hispanic or Latino have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Travis County, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Overall, about 32% of people 12 and older are still not fully vaccinated in the Austin area.

“The data and science continue to show that vaccinations are the most effective available tool to prevent severe illness, death, and to stop the spread and mutation of the COVID-19 and its variants,” Austin Public Health says.

Initially, deaths were mostly occurring among those over 60, but the delta variant has led to an increase in hospitalizations and life support among young adults and children, according to APH. People as young as 20 have died from the disease in Travis County.

“Almost all of our recent deaths are unvaccinated,” Interim Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup said in the release. “When you get vaccinated, you are showing your kids leadership. When you wear a mask, you are teaching them to respect being a part of the collective community. You are instilling values they will carry with them throughout their lives.”

Austin-Travis County has been inStage 5, the highest level of APH’s risk-based guidelines, since Aug. 5. In this stage, health officials recommend everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear masks and social distance in public. Read the full guidelineshere.

Austin Public Health operates several freevaccine clinics andtesting sites. Many other pharmacies and health care providers are also giving out shots and administering tests. Find a vaccinehere. Find a testing locationhere.

Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
Marisa Charpentier is KUT's assistant digital editor. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on Twitter @marisacharp.
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