Despite some Texas hospitals and intensive care units filling to capacity because of the coronavirus delta variant, El Paso hospitals are operating under somewhat more normal circumstances in recent days.
El Paso Health Authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza attributes that directly to the area’s high vaccination rate compared to much of the state. Almost 72% of El Paso County residents over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated; almost 88% of residents over the age of 65 are fully vaccinated, according to state data. That’s a major turnaround after last fall, when El Paso was one of the worst places for COVID-19 outbreaks.
“I’m extremely proud of our population,” Ocaranza told Texas Standard. “We believe in the vaccines. We believe in the good that the vaccines can do. And the proof is very evident in the way that we have not seen the hospitalization that we saw in October, November, when we were at the hottest spot in the country and not just in the state.”
Ocaranza says the vaccine has been a huge factor in preventing hospitalizations. Still, some 30% of El Pasoans are not vaccinated – many of whom are between age 18 and 45 – and those are the people most at risk from the delta variant of the coronavirus. Now, Ocaranza is focused on reaching them with a multi-pronged effort.
Part of that effort is effective messaging. He says El Paso public health officials try to reach holdouts through social media and with in-person initiatives at public places like grocery stores.
Another aspect is making the vaccine easy to get, and working with state and local health agencies to make that possible. Ocaranza says some people who haven’t yet been vaccinated have put it off because they’ve found it inconvenient, or couldn’t find time outside of work to do it.
“Availability is extremely important because many people work. Many people cannot make the appointment. But to bring the vaccine to them instead of waiting for the people to come and receive is also extremely important,” he said.
One of the most crucial elements of getting people vaccinated has been tapping into El Pasoan culture. Ocaranza says many families are multigenerational with a highly respected matriarch. She can influence her family members to get vaccinated perhaps better than anyone else, and he says research is even beginning to bear that out.
“Our culture is extremely important where we value the opinion, we value the leadership, of that matriarchs,” Ocaranza said.
Right now, El Paso is in a much better position than other Texas cities and counties when it comes to COVID-19 hospitalizations and cases. But residents still face risks. The delta variant spreads more easily than previous variants, especially among the unvaccinated. Also, the state recently reported a three-month high in COVID-19 hospitalizations for the Far West Texas region. As a result, Ocaranza announced earlier this week he was instating a citywide mask mandate, in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide ban on local mask ordinances.