With more than 8 million Texans becoming newly eligible to receive a vaccine as of this past week, many have found it difficult to find vaccine appointments. But imagine being homebound, without access to technology or access to transportation, that vaccine appointment becomes even more difficult.
That is why Dr. Jereka Thomas-Hockaday, a group of about 20 students with the nonprofit Central Texas Allied Health, and several other health care professionals from the community volunteered to administer Pfizer vaccine doses to more than 1,100 East Austin residents on March 27.
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Thomas-Hockaday said the vaccinations needed to be done with an old-fashioned approach, and should continue to be done this way as coronavirus vaccines roll out to the public. Instead of requiring people to register online, volunteers put out flyers with a phone number and appointments were made over the phone, which Thomas-Hockaday said was “wildly successful.”
Around 600 vaccines were available by appointment at the Lark Center on Tillery Street but another 600 vaccines were administered appointment-free at the African American Youth Harvest Foundation on U.S. 290 East.
“It was all very organic and done the old-fashioned way, and we thought how can we continue to get this done for the community,” she said. “We heard so many times that people can’t find (appointment-free vaccine clinics) anywhere else and our clinic was like a Godsend.”
In the underserved areas of East Austin and eastern Travis County, very few pharmacies, grocery stores and doctors’ offices administer vaccines. This effort is needed, Travis County officials said, adding that they want to vaccinate as many residents as possible, especially older people, people of color and low-income families who are most vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“It is still the case overall in the state, nation and the county that we need to focus on vaccinating those hit hardest — and that includes African American, Latino, and Asian communities and those living in ZIP codes east of I-35,” County Judge Andy Brown said. “The hope is to increase the percentage of African Americans, Latinos and Asians who are getting vaccines and Dr. Jereka and her clinic is the perfect example of this.”
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The county needs help getting the vaccine out to the public, so they have been working with community health care partners, like Thomas-Hockaday, to vaccinate in their communities, Brown said.
“We are moving more aggressively towards these local efforts and eliminating the barrier of having to register ahead of time online,” he said. “The goal is to have walk-up clinics to make it as equitable possible because you can just walk up to a clinic you are familiar with in your community.”
Using a similar model, local doctors are now banding together with their communities to offer vaccines clinics in other eastern portions of the county.
Starting Thursday, Dr. Karen Smith in Manor will replicate similar efforts for residents, offering more than 1,100 Pfizer vaccines through Sunday at Manor Senior High School with the help of several volunteers, local health care workers and other community members.
And not only will she offer them appointment-free and in a drive-thru format, but they are available after work and on the weekend.
“In Manor, the community has asked if we can do (a clinic) outside working hours — nights and weekends — because many of our residents are not on salary, and it is hard to get the time off work or make up the time you missed to get a vaccine in the middle of the day and that can be hard when you have a family to support,” Smith said.
Brown said the county is trying to do the same thing in Del Valle through the school district.
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“These people know their communities better and the best ways to vaccinate them,” Brown said. “They can use their connections in the community to get (vaccines) out and we want to empower and encourage them to do that and continue to do it.”
Thomas-Hockaday said this could mean also expanding their efforts outside drive-thru and walk-up clinics and adding a mobile component for residents who are homebound.
The City of Austin is working with Meals on Wheels to vaccinate residents, but Thomas-Hockaday said there is a huge group of people who don’t use that service and are still unvaccinated.
She said so many residents also didn’t know the clinics were available and if she added a mobile clinic and went door to door, that could help fill those gaps.
It could be a few more weeks before another clinic is available, but Thomas-Hockaday said they are actively fundraising to keep things going and to get a mobile clinic started.
Smith said she is doing everything she can to train and connect with area nurses, including nurses at Austin Community College’s Manor campus, to get as many people involved and administering vaccines as possible.
Both said appointment-free neighborhood clinics is what they need and will continue to find ways to keep it going.
“There is huge need for it right now,” Thomas-Hockaday said. “And it has been so wildly successful, that we don’t want this to be the last opportunity for folks.”
HOW TO HELP
To donate your services, visit Central Texas Allied Health Institute at ctahi.org or African American Youth Harvest Foundation at aayhf.org.
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