Austin neighborhoods most at-risk for COVID-19 infections seeing lowest vaccination rates, UT research shows

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin neighborhoods most at-risk for coronavirus infections are seeing lower vaccination rates, according to research from the University of Texas at Austin COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

Their researchers compared three maps:

  • The percentage of the population infected by COVID-19 infections each zip code, estimated using hospital admission data
  • The percentage of adults 16 and older which has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine
  • The CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), which measures the likelihood of economic loss and human suffering during a disaster in a certain area — based on factors such as residents’ income, occupation, race, ethnicity and multi-generational living rates

“It’s specifically used for disaster response and basically allows for a quick view that is quite complex at a variety of factors,” said Maureen Johnson-León, data equity specialist for the consortium.

She explained the SVI is used in a variety of research projects, but her fellow researchers wanted to offer Austin policymakers a view of how — and where — they could better target vaccine resources.

“We feel that that might be helpful to policy makers to make more-informed decisions on what might be done in response to these historic disparities,” she said.

Maps of estimated social vulnerability (left), cumulative SARS-CoV-2 infections (middle), and SARS-CoV-2 vaccine coverage (right) for 43 ZIP codes in Austin, Texas from the University of Texas at Austin’s COVID-19 Modeling Consortium.

“If you are looking at the map, you can see I-35 cuts roughly down the middle,” Johnson-León said, pointing out the high social vulnerability index, high infection rate and low vaccine coverage rate in the eastern zip codes.

Their report calls it a “marked geographic pattern in all three measures.”

Natasha Harper-Madison, councilmember for District 1, said she wasn’t surprised by this data.

“Here we go again. The same old song and dance,” she said. “There’s a matter of access problem here. There are fewer pharmacies, fewer family doctors, fewer people with quality health insurance, language barriers, the digital divide, mobility disparities. The deck is really stacked against a lot of people in east Austin.

She said Austin Public Health and other local health officials have done the best they can in targeting resources and pivoting when certain outreach options haven’t worked for these communities. Still, she thinks more can be done.

“We have to think ‘outside the box’ in terms of our delivery method. The national strategy included pharmacies. If we are talking about disparate impact, then communities that don’t have easy access to pharmacies need more along the lines of mobile vaccines, special considerations when making appointments, any sort of digital assistance or appointment-free vaccinations,” she said.

Todd Hamilton, co-founder of the Central Texas Allied Health Institute, said he and other health care advocates are trying to offer low-barrier vaccine clinics, but they are also focused on long-term improvements to health care access in underserved areas. In fact, the institute trains entry-level health care professionals in east Austin, aiming to bridge what Hamilton calls the “great divide” in medical care in the city.

“That’s the battle I’m trying to fight,” he said.

Hamilton said he believes the low vaccination rate and the high risk for infection go hand-in-hand — calling medical information, education about health and access to quality health care the greatest barriers for this community.

In partnership with the African American Youth Harvest Foundation, they will be offering another vaccine clinic open to the public on May 8.

He also told KXAN he hopes expanded vaccine eligibility for people ages 18 and up through Austin Public Health and ages 16 and up at other places in the state will have a chain reaction.

“They can talk to the grandmother. They can talk to the grandfather. They can talk to the aunts and uncles in order to get as many people vaccinated as possible,” he said.

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