COVID-19 Ravaged The State’s Border Counties. Now They’re Leading Texas In Vaccinations.

From El Paso to Brownsville, every county along the border is outpacing the state average for the percentage of residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

By Karen Brooks Harper & Carla Astudillo. Radio story produced by Terri LangfordJune 2, 2021 9:35 am, , ,

From The Texas Tribune:

When Rio Grande Valley retiree Robert Chapa finally got his COVID-19 vaccine in March after months of trying to secure an appointment, it was a nearby school district that came through for him.

After a year of living in a national hot spot for the virus, where death rates at one point were among the highest in the nation, Chapa, 59, was anxious to get the shot.

“I was at high risk, with one kidney,” said Chapa, who lost the organ in a car accident decades ago. “I stood in line for three hours, I think. But if you gotta get it, you gotta get it.”

A friend who worked at the Mission Independent School District helped him secure an appointment at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg as part of a drive to vaccinate district employees and their families, when demand was still high and vaccine supplies were low.

Counties on the Texas-Mexico border that were among the hardest-hit by COVID-19 are now seeing some of the highest vaccination rates in the state. From El Paso to Brownsville, every county along the border is outpacing the state average for the percentage of residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Of the 39 Texas counties currently above the state average, more than a third of them are border counties, according to state numbers.

Statewide, 35% of the total population has been fully vaccinated, including 42% of eligible Texans 12 and older. In the Rio Grande Valley, three of the four counties have already surpassed 40% of their total population fully vaccinated, including Hidalgo County with 43%, Cameron at 45% and Starr County with nearly 50%. In Webb County, which includes Laredo, 47% of residents are fully vaccinated, and El Paso County has fully vaccinated about 45% of its population.

The biggest motivator for residents to show up in such large numbers for the shot, locals say, is the fact that the region suffered so much death during COVID-19 surges. In El Paso County, more than 2,700 residents were reported to have died from the virus, and COVID-19 deaths were so frequent in the fall that inmates were used as labor to help deal with the bodies. Hidalgo County reported more than 2,800 deaths — at one point last summer, one in 10 COVID-19 deaths in Texas had happened in the county of nearly 900,000 people.

“Everybody knew someone that had died from COVID here in this region,” said Dr. Michael Dobbs, vice dean of clinical affairs at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. “I think there were very few people who were COVID skeptics or deniers.”

Strong Family Ties Help Vaccine Acceptance

Some say the trend was unexpected, mainly because most border counties are 85% or more Hispanic, and in the early days of the vaccination effort, Hispanics were being vaccinated at lower rates than whites. Border counties also are home to some of the poorest communities in the country; lower-income Texans tend to have less access to vaccines.

“I’m proud, but more than anything else, I’m grateful,” said Dr. Ivan Melendez, Hidalgo County Health Authority and a COVID survivor. “All the pre-vaccine hype about how minorities were more hesitant to get the vaccine than the rest of the population hasn’t really panned out.”

Another factor that has contributed to a high rate of vaccine acceptance along the border, locals residents and officials said, is the strong family ties among Hispanics in the region.

In Hidalgo County, for example, one in 10 families has at least three generations living in the home.

The same culture that made distancing and isolation from families particularly difficult to bear as the virus was hammering border counties now is leading families to get vaccinated so they can safely see each other again, and adult children to push their parents and relatives to get vaccinated to avoid more deaths, said Frank Arredondo, a pharmacist at a CVS Pharmacy in Pharr and a COVID-19 survivor.

“I think that’s probably kind of the secret sauce — the strong familial bonds,” said Arredondo, who estimates that he has administered up to 4,000 COVID-19 vaccines since February.

When Arredondo caught the virus last year, doctors twice told his wife that he was about to die, he said. Now that he’s recovered, he tells that story to his patients — who pass that on to their families.

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