Cutting out the middleman and increasing the number of vaccination clinics available per week — that’s the goal Weslaco city officials had in mind last December when they started the process to become a COVID-19 vaccination provider.
The city took one giant step closer to that goal Friday by holding vaccination clinics at three separate assisted and independent living facilities. Though Weslaco paramedics have been helping to get shots in arms over the last 10 weeks, Friday’s mobile clinics represent the first the city has run solo — without the assistance of the Hidalgo County Health Department.
Things kicked off at John Knox Village, where some 100 residents made their way through expansive common rooms that have sat empty over the last year due to social distancing.
For Weslaco Emergency Management Coordinator Antonio “Tony” Lopez, the events were proof of concept for the city’s broader vaccination plan.
“It’s going to be a test for us, for our plan. But we have a very good crew, and an operations team that has done this already multiple times,” Lopez said.
“So, I’m very confident that it’s going to be a successful day for us today,” he said.
If the residents’ smiles were any indication, the event was a resounding success.
One pair of residents couldn’t stop beaming as they stopped to talk to John Knox Village Executive Director Mindy Lasater. The ebullient women laughed and thanked Lasater, saying the vaccine clinic was just another in a long list of reasons to love living at the 62 and over community.
“It’s a very close community and we want to be as safe as possible,” Lasater said.
“This was a big deal. This is a good day,” she said.
The Village’s nursing home and assisted living residents had already received their vaccines thanks to state efforts, Lasater said. And about 200 independent living residents were able to receive their doses at a mass vaccination event held at Knapp Medical Center.
But that still left some residents with mobility issues waiting for their turn.
“We had a large number of residents that really could not make that trip. They couldn’t get on the bus. They couldn’t go wait in a long line,” Lasater said.
Thanks to Weslaco’s efforts, however, the remainder of the Village’s residents are now on their way to COVID-19 protection.
They join the 10,000 people Weslaco paramedics have administered vaccines to over the last 10 weeks. Officials hope they’ll be able to inoculate even more people now that the city is a designated vaccine provider.
The designation means the city will soon be able to request vaccine allotments directly from the state. Up to now, Weslaco has been dependent on receiving doses from Hidalgo County’s allotment.
“I think this is going to give us greater flexibility,” said Weslaco City Manager Mike Perez.
Anticipating an increase in capacity, officials have already ordered a freezer to store the vials. The goal is to be able to provide vaccination clinics five days per week by the summertime.
Perez said if the pace of vaccination continues, he expects the general public will be able to start getting their shots within the next few weeks.
But until then, officials continue to focus their efforts not only on the most vulnerable populations, but at the places where the most number of doses can be administered at once.
It’s a strategic move meant to stretch the blanket of herd immunity over the community as a whole as quickly as possible. Only then will providers be able to turn to the logistical hurdles of vaccinating people who are homebound.
It’s something Lopez said he and other officials have been strategizing for some time now.
“The amount of resources that we would need are going to be a lot of resources. We have to be ready and have a good plan before we pull that trigger,” Lopez said.
A four-person team located at one static vaccination site can administer up to 200 shots per hour, Perez said. Whereas that same team — making house calls — would be lucky to administer 10% that number in an entire day, the city manager said.
“It’s kind of sad, but we’ve gotta vaccinate the largest amount of people we can in the shortest period of time,” Perez said.
Any homebound vaccination plan will likely include the formation of vaccination teams, similar to what the city of Pharr is doing, he said.
In the meantime, for residents of John Knox Village, like Ellen McConnell, getting her first dose Friday was a moment of hope for the future.
“Because I’m 86 years old and I’m looking forward to at least another 10,” McConnell said with a laugh.
“That’s be that much less time we have to wait before we can get rid of these masks and everybody will be safe,” she said.