Vicente Escobedo and Melvin Fitzgerald wear masks as they approach Alis Tire Shop on Old Pearsall Road and ask to see the manager.

Two men standing roughly 6 feet apart amid a sea of cars and the smell of motor oil point him toward the back. Escobedo steps over mufflers and waits for shop owner Rene Salazar to emerge from the small garage. His shirt, jeans, and filtered face mask are smudged with grease.

“You’re an essential business?” Escobedo asked.

“Transportation, I guess,” Salazar said.

“And y’all are practicing social distancing?” Escobedo asks, taking a step back from Salazar as he asks. This well-timed step has become a routine for Escobedo as he fills out an official form and checklist on a tablet.

Salazar laughs (it gets a chuckle almost every time). “Yes – we are now.”

Escobedo, who has three years of experience at Metropolitan Health District as a community health worker, hands him a couple of flyers (in English and Spanish) about recommended use of cloth face masks, social distancing, how to comply with the “Stay Home, Work Safe” order, and how to get tested for the coronavirus.

Salazar and his team get back to work. Almost all of them are already wearing masks and gloves.

“A lot of people, once they see us, they kind of get pretty defensive,” Escobedo told the Rivard Report while walking to the next business along Old Pearsall Road, “but I just make light of it. … They’ve been mostly receptive.”

They might think we’re here to ticket them, Fitzgerald said. If a team sees anything egregious, he said, they might refer them to SAPD.

“But right now we’re just doing education,” he said. “We’re not trying to enforce anything.”

SAFD paramedic Melvin Fitzgerald speaks to a clerk at a Circle K convenience store about COVID-19 prevention measures. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Escobedo and Fitzgerald make up one of seven Community Health and Prevention Teams that have been deployed this month to vulnerable neighborhoods to educate businesses and residents about best practices to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and how to get tested. The teams are staffed by the City’s Metropolitan Health District, Parks and Recreation Department, police and fire departments, and the South Texas Regional Advisory Council and organized through the City of San Antonio and Bexar County’s joint emergency operations center.

“As we’ve seen in national news, communities of color are disproportionally impacted by COVID-19. … [Those communities] are seeing higher percentages of those that are in hospital with more severe cases,” Mario Martinez, assistant director of Metro Health, said during a phone interview Friday morning.

In Bexar County, case demographics according to race roughly follow the demographics of the area, but 11 of the 38 people who have died from COVID-19 in Bexar County were black, despite making up just 7 percent of the population. Only 926 of the 992 confirmed cases had race information available as of Saturday, and there are roughly 2 million people who live in Bexar County. The free, public testing site at Freeman Coliseum and urgent care facilities require someone to have symptoms in order to get a test.

The outreach initiative uses a heat map – developed by the City’s Office of Equity before the pandemic – to target low-income census tracts where there are high percentages of people of color, Martinez said. Census tracts are ranked by the population density of people of color and median household income.

There are more than 40 census tracts that rank in the highest category, which the teams focus on, Martinez said, but they also visit locations in the second-highest category census tracts – and there are nearly just as many.

The scores that range from 2 (light yellow) to 10 (blue) are a combined score of the race and income tabs, indicating that the higher the number, the higher the concentration of both people of color and low-income households in that census tract.
Scores, ranging from 2 (light yellow) to 10 (blue), represent a combined score of the race and income tabs. The higher the number, the higher the concentration of both people of color and low-income households in that census tract. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio Office of Equity

“The purpose of this team is to be in those communities … and really be on the ground to share information about how can we spread the word about symptoms and testing,” Martinez said. “We’re taking an equity approach to this team and their work.”

The team targets its efforts further by using geographic data collected by the City’s COVID-19 Hotline and online self-screening tool, he said. “We want to reach the areas that don’t call … or aren’t being tested.”

Back on Old Pearsall Road, Fitzgerald, a 44-year veteran of the San Antonio Fire Department, pushed a gloved finger against a call button outside the Make a Wish Learning Center’s front door.

Jacque Parra, a manager, opened the security door and propped it open with a floor mat.

“We’re going around doing wellness checks … at businesses, churches, and other things open during this time,” Fitzgerald told her. “There’s a lot of stuff that a lot of people don’t know about.”

Parra smiled and said she and her staff are well aware of the risks. Every morning she takes every adult and child’s temperature before they can enter. They keep the kids separated as much as they can.

“We appreciate that. Please relay that to other people [parents and neighbors],” Fitzgerald said. “They hear so much on the news and they start to just ignore it.”

Hearing advice and precautions from someone you know or from someone in-person can be much more effective for people who either don’t get a lot of media or get overloaded, Martinez said. “When you have a person reach out to you, the likelihood for them to listen and understand and take action is more likely.”

Vicente Escobedo, a community health worker with Metropolitan Health District, and SAFD paramedic Melvin Fitzgerald speak with employees at a Family Dollar on Old Pearsall Road. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Each team is trained to keep their distance from people they visit while at home and at work. For those who are not home, the City made door hangars with information for teams to leave behind.

They also have access to a database of services and nonprofits that can help business owners and residents with other needs such as loans, food, or legal help, Martinez said. “[We also coordinate] with our City’s immigration liaison who has been an asset to this team.”

Last week, the teams were focused on the East Side and covered 16 census tracts, Martinez said.

During the two hours the Rivard Report spent with Fitzgerald and Escobedo, they visited about 10 businesses and documented several others that were closed.

Fitzgerald’s normal duties have him working with the Mobile Integrated Health unit, which seeks out folks in need of psychiatric care who are often homeless. Escobedo’s job pre-coronavirus also took him out in the community providing community health information.

Their roles today are different but still involve engaging the community, Escobedo said.

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at