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Austin-area Black leaders call for action on vaccine strategy

"This pandemic has cast a harsh light on the regional inequities that have gone unaddressed for far too long and now expand beyond Austin’s city limits."

AUSTIN, Texas — Along with other Black elected leaders in Travis County, Austin City Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison is expressing concerns about the local rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations.

State Rep. Sheryl Cole, Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion, Manor Mayor Dr. Larry Wallace Jr. and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer joined Harper-Madison to release a joint statement this week addressing potential inequities in local vaccine distribution. 

"We've said many, many times at this point that the COVID-19 virus has really put a magnifying glass on disparities in the Eastern Crescent and other communities of color and other communities that are existing in the margins," said Harper-Madison. 

Leaders said areas east of Interstate 35 have a lack of grocery stores, pharmacies and clinics, meaning the vaccine isn't as easily accessible for people in that area.

Harper-Madison said this needs to be an "all-hands-on-deck" situation, while she and other leaders are pushing for national and state governments to collaborate with local ones. 

In a Zoom press conference on Monday, leaders said they don't think a blanket approach is the way to go when it comes to vaccine distribution. 

"Let me give you a relevant example here. So if you're talking about vaccines are happening in H-E-Bs, well, Manor doesn't have one. If you're talking about they're happening at CVSs, Manor doesn't have one. At Walgreens, Manor doesn't have one," said Wallace.

One suggestion from the leaders, in hopes of granting more people easy access, is to utilize churches, schools and fire stations and pop-up clinics for vaccine distributions. 

"In the end, we're the ones who are responsible for these citizens. And the only way that's going to get done is that you had included in these discussions the folks who actually serve and work in these communities," said Metayer. "And that's what we're asking for here."

You can read the elected leaders' full statement below:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has created both a public health crisis as well as an economic crisis, and we know we cannot address the latter until we take care of the former. We know that our constituents are eager to get back to work. They are concerned about their businesses and their livelihoods, real anxieties that underscore the need to maintain a laser-like focus on comprehensive outreach, testing, and now vaccination strategies

“It has been said many, many times but it always bears repeating: This pandemic has cast a harsh light on the regional inequities that have gone unaddressed for far too long and now expand beyond Austin’s city limits. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, we’re once again seeing more signs of those inequities. Generations of disinvestment and underdevelopment in the Eastern Crescent led to the lack of grocery stores, pharmacies, and clinics this is now behind an early imbalance in access to vaccinations compared to areas west of I-35. This is a major concern given that the Black and Latino communities within the Crescent are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and have seen disproportionately higher rates of death due to the illness.

“It is clear there are not yet enough vaccine doses in our community. It is also clear that, along with the imbalanced accessibility, the existing system of distribution has created confusion and other complications. While the national and state delivery strategies need to be calibrated to serve our local communities better, our local response must be carried out with the same unwavering sense of purpose and reinvigorated commitment to equity and racial justice that powered so much positive change in the second half of 2020.

“Alternative vaccine tactics need to be explored immediately, and public resources such as fire stations and schools should be considered as potential pop-up vaccination clinics. To ensure we have enough personnel to quickly administer the vaccines as the supply increases, we should be preparing firefighters, paramedics, school nurses, nursing students, or others to meet the task. Furthermore, organizations such as Central Texas Allied Health Institute that are currently providing testing could also be tapped to provide vaccinations with minimal adjustment to their delivery models.

“As elected leaders, we recognize the powerful urgency of this moment and we are committed to bringing forward concrete solutions quickly. We will not tolerate a hands-off vaccination strategy that ends the pandemic quickly for the privileged while letting it linger indefinitely among our most marginalized constituents. This community can and must do better and we won’t rest until it does.”

The joint statement comes as much of Texas has struggled to keep up with the demand for vaccinations as it moves from Phase 1A to Phase 1B.

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