AUSTIN (KXAN) — “It was devastating, heartbreaking,” said Paul Saldaña, a member of the Austin Latino Coalition whose uncle was laid to rest last week. It was another COVID-19 casualty in his community.

He is one of about 70 coalition volunteers who have been trying to bring more personal protective equipment, public education and COVID-19 testing to Hispanic and Latino communities in Austin.

“One of the things that we learned early on in this process is a lot of folks from the minority low income communities, in particular, were having difficulty accessing COVID testing for various reasons,” Saldaña said.

According to Austin’s COVID-19 dashboard, nearly half of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are Hispanic people.

Many of them, Saldaña says, live in east Austin, where he says resources have been limited.

That’s one of the reasons why a COVID-19 antibody therapy center is set to open in that area on Wednesday.

“The idea is to be set up to help those in underserved areas,” said Chance Karshens, Texas Emergency Medical Taskforce regional coordinator.

The facility is located in the parking lot of the CommUnity Care clinic in the Montopolis neighborhood.

City and county leaders are partnering with the Texas Division of Emergency Management to administer an hour-long blood infusion to COVID-19 patients who qualify for them. Karshens says patients will be monitored after the infusion, so some will stay up to three hours at the mobile site.

The goal is to minimize the symptoms of high-risk patients, reducing the likelihood of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

He says the trailer will start by treating about 20 patients on its first day, ramping up to 30 or 40 per day. Nine cots are set up inside the trailer a time.

Karshen says medication will come from local hospitals and can be either regeneron or bamlanivimab.

“It really depends on what the stock is, because we’re depending on multiple hospitals throughout the state to provide us with this, so depending on what they have and what they use is what we’ll be using,” he said. “It’s the same therapy, the basic concept is the same, it’s just a matter of the different ways that they mix into the IV to be injected into the patient.”

Karshen says all staff–doctors, nurses and technicians, will be staffed by a contracting company.

“They have all the nurses, the doctors, everything that’s needed basically to run a little field hospital like this,” he said.

Saldaña says while the treatment will be beneficial for the community, he still has concerns.

“At the same time, if the vaccine is available, why aren’t we making that vaccine available in the community? Why should our community be treated as second class citizens and therefore, you know, only be given alternatives when the vaccine is available to everybody else?”

Saldaña also says the root issues still persist, like a lack of communication and public education for Spanish speakers or those without internet access.

Stephanie Hayden with Austin Public Health says right now, the county does not have enough vaccines to accommodate the demand. The agency also says they have consistently worked with minority communities and will continue to do so.

“While we cannot regulate how the other providers prioritize their vaccine (similar to other drug distribution), we (APH) know what to do with ours (if/when we get it from the state). We have strategically served families in areas like east Austin and Del Valle with family programs, WIC, HIV testing, TB surveillance, health checkups and food programs in addition to vaccines such as flu shots,” a spokesperson wrote to KXAN.

Back in October, she points out that APH used areas in east Austin to distribute the flu vaccine, practicing for the COVID-19 vaccine distribution. “We have a plan, just need the vaccine. The amount of vaccine will dictate what space we use.”

Hayden also stressed addressing inequities during Tuesday’s Travis County Commissioners Court, saying APH is working on a vaccine distribution plan to include hard-hit, low-income and minority communities.

  • Inside the COVID-19 antibody therapy center on Jan. 5. It's set to open in east Austin (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)
  • Inside the COVID-19 antibody therapy center on Jan. 5. It's set to open in east Austin (KXAN Photo/Tahera Rahman)