In a converted storage space at the back of Austin’s Walmart Supercenter, dozens of people lined up to get their COVID jabs on Tuesday.
The storage area had been chosen because it was the largest available space and offered the greatest degree of social distancing, said Sarah Sultan, market health and wellness director.
Ald. Emma Mitts (37th) said the community she represents hasn’t been there. Even though the vaccine is now available in her ward – Mitts help bring Walmart to Austin – residents aren’t taking advantage, she said. “There’s something wrong with that picture.”
As of Tuesday, Walmart’s Supercenter at 4650 W. North Ave. had vaccinated over 700 people, Sultan said. It wasn’t clear how many of those vaccinated were from the community surrounding the Austin store.
City data shows 2,742 people in the 60639 ZIP code, where the Walmart is located, have received their first dose. At 3.1% of the ZIP code’s population, it’s among the lowest vaccination rates in the city.
Sultan said Walmart is running ad campaigns in both English and Spanish “to really, really promote people getting vaccinated.”
A spokesperson for Walmart was not immediately available to answer questions about how the store was reaching out to West Side residents.
Ald. Mitts said there’s a lot of resistance to the vaccine, especially among the younger generation. Her office has been working to disseminate factual information and “take some of the myth” out of the vaccine. As many people as possible need to be vaccinated, she said.
“Let’s get it done. Let’s keep everybody safe, so that we can get back to some sense of normalcy,” she said.
The Austin Supercenter’s health center was introduced in November, following a remodel of the store.
It offers multiple healthcare services through Walmart Health, including primary care, optometry and hearing services, with the goal of providing “affordable and accessible healthcare,” according to a press release.
HabitNu also provides a diabetes prevention and weight-loss coaching program through Walmart Health. The program is covered by Medicare and is free for Chicago residents who aren’t on Medicare.
Patrick Knowles, director of business development, said in a statement, “The program combines personal weight loss coaching taught by community health workers with a supportive group of like-minded peers.”
While the Walmart Health location is listed as a covered pharmacy by Aetna, it is unclear if they are also covered under Illinois’ Medicaid program. Their FAQ section lists only Medicaid plans in Georgia and South Carolina as accepted providers.
A Walmart spokesperson was not available to comment.
State Rep. La Shawn K. Ford said those covered by Medicaid face far more restrictions on which pharmacies they can use and have less choice than other Illinois residents who have Aetna health plans.
Ford, who has Aetna health, said in an interview he can go anywhere to get the prescriptions he needs. But those on Medicaid are restricted to either CVS pharmacies or a limited number of small private pharmacies to fill their prescriptions.
There are no CVS pharmacies in Austin.
In response, Rep. Ford introduced legislation in the Illinois House this week that would prevent managed care organizations from restricting pharmacy access and commission an analysis on pharmacy deserts, like Austin.
During a pandemic, and with West Side residents dying daily from opioid overdoses, “it makes no sense to limit access to pharmacies,” he said.