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'Finally found our stride': Vaccine outreach gaining ground in Black, Hispanic communities

Heather Osbourne
Austin American-Statesman
A nursing student gives Jocelyn Sanchez, 19, her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine during a drive-thru vaccine center held at Manor High School stadium, on April 1.

Austin and Travis County's top health officials Tuesday said their continued strategy aimed at bringing coronavirus vaccines to the doorsteps of those most disproportionately affected by the virus is starting to pay off. 

Dr. Desmar Walkes, Austin-Travis County health authority, and interim Austin Public Health Director Adrienne Sturrup told local leaders Tuesday that more work still needs to be done in educating those with vaccine hesitancy about the safety and efficacy of the doses.

But the implementation of vaccination sites at Hispanic and Black churches and community centers has led to more people of color becoming vaccinated in the past few months.  

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A total of 724,091 Travis County residents have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine so far, according to data from the Texas Department of State Health Services on Tuesday.

Of those, 26,091 of the vaccine recipients were Black; 145,869 were Hispanic; and 57,848 were Asian, according to data on those who gave their race or ethnicity. 

While 334,231 vaccinations went to white recipients in Travis County, an additional 160,052 vaccinations were given to people who labeled their race or ethnicity as "other" or chose not to answer and were categorized as "unknown." 

Sturrup said Austin Public Health is trying to dig deeper into the other and unknown categories to see if Black and Hispanic residents are underrepresented in the coronavirus vaccine data because they didn't identify their race or ethnicity during the vaccination process. 

"Anecdotally, we know that these numbers represent individuals who were uncomfortable with selecting or identifying their race and ethnicity while filling out the registration information," Sturrup said. 

Walkes, in a presentation to the Austin City Council and the Travis County Commissioners Court on Tuesday, reiterated the importance of tracking data regarding race and ethnicity because while Black residents in Travis County represent 8% of the area's population, they represent 10% of all deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in the area.

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In comparison, Walkes said, El Paso's Black residents make up 3.1% of that community, but their coronavirus death rate is 1.3%. 

The Austin area's Hispanic community, like the Black population, also has been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus pandemic locally, with Hispanics making up 33.6% of the total population but 46.3% of the COVID-19 deaths. 

El Paso's Hispanic population represents 82.8% of its residents and 89.4% of its deaths from the disease. 

"I think we finally have found our stride with just going where people are," said Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison while listening to Walkes and Sturrup's presentations Tuesday. Harper-Madison's District 1 covers a swath of Austin east of Interstate 35 with large populations of Hispanic and Black residents. "I'm getting more and more questions from people who had previously stated they were hesitant, so I think the outreach efforts are starting to penetrate communities, and that makes me very hopeful." 

As of Tuesday, state data show Travis County has fully vaccinated 54.5% of those 12 years old and older. About 66.4% of that population have received at least one dose. 

For those 65 years or older, about 86% have received at least one dose, while about 75% are fully vaccinated. 

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Walkes on Tuesday said herd immunity, which occurs when enough people in a community are protected from getting a disease because they’ve already had the disease or they’ve been vaccinated, will be reached in Travis County when about 70% to 90% of the population is fully vaccinated. The figure accounts for those who also may acquired antibodies through illness. 

Herd immunity is important because it even protects those who cannot be vaccinated, such as newborns, or those who can get vaccinated but are still at risk of disease because of compromised immune systems from such illnesses as cancer. 

Travis County Constable George Morales III said in Tuesday's coronavirus briefing that he's also leading a team focused on community outreach and taking time to answer questions brought up by those with vaccine hesitancy.

On Saturday, Morales said his team is hosting a pop-up event at the Millennium Youth Complex in East Austin with many city, county and faith-based leaders attending to answer questions regarding the vaccine. 

Morales said his team also made about 2,000 phone calls, visited 2,500 apartment complexes and mobile homes and sent about 2,000 text messages to increase awareness of the vaccine. 

"We want to make sure people are comfortable with the message that we're giving," Morales said. "You know, it's a scary process because some people are just unfamiliar with what we got going on. 

"We are working to reach those hard-to-reach areas," he continued. "People with lack of transportation, lack of Wi-Fi, lack of access to technology. Those are the areas that are our focus and concern."