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Texas Officials Call For Changes In Initial COVID-19 Vaccination Plan

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Many communities of color have been disproportionately gutted by COVID-19. People are dying at up to three times the rate of white people, and there's growing concern that distribution of the coronavirus vaccine is not taking those disparities into account. In Texas, local governments are pushing back against the initial vaccination plan to make sure Black and Latino communities are not left behind. Ashley Lopez of member station KUT in Austin has the story.

ASHLEY LOPEZ, BYLINE: Andy Brown is the county executive for the Austin area. He's showing me around the site of a recent vaccination event that he organized.

ANDY BROWN: So this is - we had people drive up here.

A LOPEZ: Brown says he'd been hearing concerns that there weren't enough places to get the COVID vaccine on the east side of Austin, which is more racially diverse and also more impoverished. Brown decided to do something about it, so he asked a local hospital for extra vaccines. With 600 doses in hand, he worked with other local officials to set up this temporary vaccination site in southeast Austin.

BROWN: They all realize that we need to get the vaccines in the arms of people who are in the hardest-hit ZIP codes, who are Latinx or African American, especially who are over 65 because those are the people who get sickest.

A LOPEZ: When Texas first released its distribution plan, advocates and local leaders pushed back. State House member Sheryl Cole is a Democrat who represents Black and Latino communities in East Austin. She pointed out that the initial plan had 65 vaccine sites for Austin, but only nine were on the east side.

SHERYL COLE: So without a doubt, we're seeing disparate treatment of distribution and providers.

A LOPEZ: Part of the reason is that the plan relied heavily on chain stores. But as county executive Andy Brown points out, those big grocery and drugstores aren't as prevalent in East Austin.

BROWN: The fact is this part of town frankly does not have as many H-E-Bs, pharmacies, has a higher uninsured rate.

A LOPEZ: Local officials are trying to fix this problem. Austin Mayor Steve Adler says his office has been lobbying state health officials to turn over the bulk of vaccines to local governments, who know best how to get them to the hardest-hit communities.

STEVE ADLER: I believe that it goes out much more quickly and gets to the people that most need it.

A LOPEZ: And this lobbying has worked. Recently, Texas health officials have started giving vaccines to local health departments, which are set up to vaccinate thousands of people. But it's just a start. Austin officials recently got about 12,000 doses in a city of about 1 million. Jeremy Lopez, who lives in East Austin, signed up to get a vaccine from the city as soon as he could. Lopez had a kidney transplant in 2006 and is in a high risk group, but he still has no idea when he'll get vaccinated.

JEREMY LOPEZ: There's no definite timeframe of, oh, in a week; oh, in two weeks. It's, we'll contact you. So it's like, don't call us. We'll call you.

A LOPEZ: Local officials are urging people to be patient, but Austin City Council member Natasha Harper-Madison says everyone, including state and local government, should have done more planning ahead of time.

NATASHA HARPER-MADISON: I am a member of the city of Austin's governing body, and I got to tell you I don't think we did everything we could have to make certain that we were prepared for what we knew was coming.

A LOPEZ: And she says that includes having plans to prioritize the hardest-hit communities. Texas House member Sheryl Cole agrees, saying Black and Latino Texans have been through enough.

COLE: The underserved community already has to deal with economic disparity and loss of jobs with COVID. And then to add this additional burden is really not good. I mean, it's not fathomable.

A LOPEZ: But there's still tension in other parts of Texas over who should get the shot next. This week Dallas County had to abandon a plan to prioritize communities that are less wealthy and white after state health officials threatened to stop sending them vaccines. For NPR News, I'm Ashley Lopez in Austin.

SHAPIRO: And this story comes from NPR's partnership with KUT and Kaiser Health News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.