Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind

By Joe Rocha | Monday, May 17th 2021

It's been an arduous path for Del Valle residents, but Susanna Ledesma Woody and the Del Valle Community Coalition are finally getting Covid-19 vaccines into the arms of residents of their hard-hit community.

“We had one family that brought like literally 12 members and we took a picture with them,” Woody says. “They're like, ‘Yeah, thank you, cause we wouldn't have been able to do it.’”

According to a study by The University of Texas at Austin, Del Valle and other communities along the Eastern Crescent of Travis County have had some of the highest infection rates of Covid-19 in Central Texas and one of the lowest vaccination rates.

“Our community was hit very hard because we already lacked a lot of the basic resources that a normal community would have like health care facilities and the grocery stores and all that,” Woody says.

Woody is president of the DVCC, which responded to gaps in local pandemic response last year. The DVCC partnered with the Austin Latino Coalition to hand out personal protective equipment, Covid-19 information and help residents get tested. This organizing work became vital as the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations failed to reach the Del Valle community, forcing the DVCC to once again come up with alternate plans.

“It was unfortunate, but it really highlighted like this is a real issue here in this community and we need to do something about it,” Woody says.

An estimated 77% of Del Valle residents identify as Hispanic or Latino, and the mostly rural area has a high concentration of low-income households.

“The majority of our community is workers, like construction, nursing homes, hospitals, environmental. We do it all,” Woody says.

With a drop in demand and increase in supply, providers like Austin Public Health are working to make the vaccination process easier by creating walk-up clinics that don’t require registering or an appointment. The Biden administration also announced a vaccination assistance hotline for people without internet access. Despite these efforts, Woody says that more work needs to be done in her community.

“They're still not doing the community block walking and getting to those folks that aren't necessarily going to just go to whatever entity says, ‘Go here,’” Woody says. “They're going to go to people that they know.”

Although the Del Valle area currently lacks health care facilities, Central Health is planning on opening two clinics there in the next several years. The DVCC has been advocating for these facilities since they began organizing in the area more than 10 years ago.

Del-Valle-Vaccines Photo 04

Susanna Ledesma Woody (right) discusses the opening of two clinics in the Del Valle area with Central Health President and CEO, Mike Geeslin (middle) and Deputy Administrator Perla Cavazos (left) on May 6, 2021. The Del Valle Community Coalition has advocated for health care facilities in the Del Valle area since they began organizing more than 10 years ago.

“We did get a lot more progress from like Central Health and from the commissioners and the city of Austin, but it took a pandemic to get us this far,” Woody says.

In late February, the Central Texas Counties Vaccine Collaborative ran a mass vaccination site at Circuit of The Americas in Del Valle but Woody says that much of her community had trouble accessing it. The site has since relocated to the Travis County Exposition Center on Decker Lane.

“It was technology proficiency that just wasn't in our community. It was lack of transportation, no providers that were easily accessible, and then there was the language barriers as well,” Woody says. “I wasn't really surprised on the vaccine distribution rollout because we knew that it was going to happen just like the Covid test kits happened. Out of sight, out of mind, type of mentality.”

Woody says that this mentality in vaccine distribution is fueled by a misconception of communities of color.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh, it's hesitancy, you know? Communities of color, they don't want to get vaccinated. That's not the case,” Woody says.

While this notion of hesitancy in communities of color circulated early this year, the DVCC decided to survey their community on vaccination intent to find out for themselves. Alyssa Rodriguez is the project coordinator for the DVCC and was in charge of this data collection.

Del-Valle-Vaccines Photo 01

Susanna Ledesma Woody (right) thanks Del Valle Community Coalition members for volunteering at the vaccination site at Hillcrest Elementary School on April 24, 2021. Volunteers include Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes (left), Alyssa Rodriguez (second from left) and Jennifer Eberly (second from right).

“We wanted to make sure that we were understanding the wants and the needs of the community in order to guide our efforts on the ground as effectively as possible,” Rodriguez says.

The surveys show an estimated 80% of folks in the 78617 zip code are and other locations considered part of the Del Valle Independent School District intend on getting vaccinated.

“Lack of information and accessibility were really the main things that people were communicating with us,” Rodriguez says. “For the people that wanted the vaccine, the next question was always, ‘Are you giving them out? Can I get one right now?'”

In early April, the DVCC partnered with Austin City Council Member Vanessa Fuentes and Walgreens to provide a pop-up vaccination site at Popham Elementary School for community members that qualified.

“We've been trying to work with the city and the county to do popups for a while,” Woody says. “We were very specific on who we were going to target, and we made it known like, if you're not in the Del Valle ISD communities, if you're not in the zip codes, you will not get an appointment.”

The DVCC hosted another pop-up vaccination site at Hillcrest Elementary School on April 24. Caroline Salazar received her first dose there and stressed the impact these clinics would have made had they opened sooner.

“A lot of people wouldn’t have probably lost their lives. A lot of people wouldn’t have had a lot of heartache or damage, medically,” Salazar says.

Del-Valle-Vaccines Photo 03

Susanna Ledesma Woody (left) runs through the list of residents to be vaccinated with a volunteer at Hillcrest Elementary School on April 24, 2021. The Del Valle Community Coalition has set up vaccination sites for residents within the Del Valle Independent School District zip codes who were unable to secure an appointment.

Even though Salazar says she qualified for the vaccine during the phase 1b rollout, she was unable to secure an appointment until the DVCC event.

“We’re like the forgotten neighborhoods,” Salazar says. “We’re just left behind and oh well. We’ll get to them when we get to them.’”

The DVCC registered community members for vaccines by going door-to-door, doing outreach through their Facebook group and simply removing roadblocks.

“If you have an ID, great, then we can scan it and get you in quicker. But if you don't, we'll just put your name down. The bare minimum of what the state is asking,” Woody says.

Now that the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine has been approved by the FDA for children ages 12 to 15, the next challenge will be vaccinating a portion of the Del Valle ISD which serves over 11,000 students. Despite the barriers in place for Del Valle residents, Woody says that she’s going to continue this work until all community members have access to the vaccine.

“My non-profit, we're all volunteers, none of us get paid. We're all here doing this because we care and we want stuff to happen and we want our community to be safe,” Woody says. “The community is there. We're there to help each other out. That's not an issue. It's getting the government to come help us out and getting our community vaccinated.”

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