Local leaders push masks, vaccines in southeast Austin neighborhood hit hard by COVID-19

Austin

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The battle continues between local and state authorities over the issue of masking in Texas.

On Friday, Austin and Travis County expanded the local mask order to include all public colleges in addition to public schools and city and county buildings. This would apply to the University of Texas and Austin Community College, which has already said it will require masks in all ACC buildings for anyone 2 years of age or older, effective Aug. 20.

Also, a district court judge in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the governor’s ban on local mask mandates. This lawsuit was brought by parents all over Texas, including three in Eanes, Manor and the Pflugerville Independent School Districts.

That gives those school districts legal standing to follow local orders rather than Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order for the next 10 days while attorneys seek a more extensive injunction.

Abbott’s executive order prohibits school districts from mandating masks, which he believes should be the choice of every individual. On Wednesday, Abbott threatened to sue any local authority that defies him.

Several school districts, including Pflugerville and Eanes ISD, have ignored the local Travis County order, leaving it up to parents to decide whether their kids will wear a mask on campus. KXAN has reached out to each of the school districts named to find out if the restraining order has led to a change in policy. Eanes ISD said it has not been served with any additional information from the courts. KXAN has not heard back from the others.

In southeast Austin, community leaders are zeroing in on a specific area, pushing for greater COVID-19 safety, particularly in schools. Austin City Councilmembers say the 78744 zip code has the highest rates of cases and hospitalizations and the lowest rates of vaccinations.

On Friday, the local leaders pushed public messaging to try to dispel misinformation within the greater community.

Austin City Councilmember Vanessa Fuentes organized the group of doctors, educators and school district trustees to share a message of school safety. She said the neighborhood has been plagued by vaccine hesitancy and a general dismissiveness to wearing masks.

Austin City Councilmember Vanessa Fuentes organized the group of doctors, educators and school district trustees to share a message of school safety. (KXAN Photo/Clare O'Connor)
Austin City Councilmember Vanessa Fuentes organized the group of doctors, educators and school district trustees to share a message of school safety. (KXAN Photo/Clare O’Connor)

“We have a disproportionate number of of cases, we have a disproportionate rate of hospitalizations as well as one of the lowest vaccination rates in the city, and we know this greatly impacts Latinos which make up over 70% of District 2,” said Fuentes. “Vaccines are our greatest defense against COVID and our littlest Austinites are not eligible for the vaccine. We have to do everything in our power to keep our community safe.”

Dr. Nick Yagoda, chief medical officer for CommUnity Care Health Centers, stressed the importance of vaccines for those who are eligible. The 78744 zip code has one of the lowest vaccination rates in Travis County, with 44% of the population fully vaccinated, according to Travis County records. Yagoda also pushed for students to return to on-campus learning, but said first it’s important for them to wear a mask to reduce the risk of transmission.

“The vaccines are remarkably safe and dramatically reduce the risk of severe illness and death and are the cornerstone of us getting out of this pandemic,” Yagoda said. “Protecting ourselves protects those around us, and protecting those around us protects ourselves.”

Both Austin ISD and Del Valle ISD, which both serve the 78744 zip code, officially mandated masks. Parents said consistent community messaging gives them confidence to send their kids to school next week.

“It’s a community effort. It’s not just the school effort, not just the district effort, it’s gonna take everybody to get us back down below Stage 5 and keep our kids safe,” said Sasha Salinas, a mom of two AISD students.

Reach KXAN’s Education Reporter Alex Caprariello by email at alexc@kxan.com or by phone at 512-703-5365, or find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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