Willacy holds its first vaccination clinic; Local leaders pushed state for doses

Willacy County residents took part in the county’s first COVID-19 vaccination clinic on Friday. Those targeted were people 65 years of age or older and those with underlying medical conditions.(Maricela Rodriguez/Valley Morning Star)

RAYMONDVILLE — Like many Willacy County residents, Martin Garcia waited for weeks for state health officials to hold a COVID-19 vaccination clinic here.

On Friday, state officials administered 780 doses of the Moderna vaccine to people 65 and older and those suffering underlying medical conditions as rows of white tents popped up across Raymondville high school’s sprawling parking lot.

“We’ve been waiting for it to come to Willacy County because they’re short on vaccine,” Garcia, 80, a retired veterinarian who lives on a ranch north of town, said as he sat with his wife Celia in their car.

At 11:10 a.m., Garcia drove into one of five long lanes leading to six tents in which doctors and nurses were administering the vaccine.

About 20 minuets later, he and his wife got their shots.

In 28 days, they’re set to take the vaccine’s second and final dose.

“If you have your paperwork ready, it’s a breeze,” Garcia, who pre-registered for his vaccination, said.

Pushing for vaccine doses

For at least two weeks, county leaders had pushed state health officials to send vaccine doses to administer at a vaccination clinic, Ben Clinton, the Raymondville school district’s deputy superintendent, said.

“Other communities were doing mass vaccinations and we hadn’t gotten any,” Clinton said. “We’ve been pushing for at least a couple of weeks — all the county leadership — for some way to get vaccines.”

At first, state officials planned to send the county 300 doses, he said.

But local leaders pushed for more.

“Let’s show them we can handle 1,000 — we’ve got the resources,” Clinton said, referring to state health officials. “They wanted to see if we could put 1,000 shots in people’s arms.”

Officials offered the state use of the high school campus to serve as the clinic’s site, he said.

“This is a really good reflection of what our community is capable of,” Clinton said. “It really makes me proud to be from Willacy County to see something like this happening.”

Factors behind Willacy vaccinations

As she gazed at the long lines of cars heading for the vaccination tents, Dr. Emily Prot, the state’s Region 11 medical director, said health officials drew the clinic’s 780 doses from other counties’ share.

“We took that from other counties to come up with 780,” she said.

Before the shipment, the state hadn’t sent the county vaccine doses because local leaders hadn’t signed on as providers, she said.

“There’s no hospital here,” she said. “There was no place to store it.”

Since the state launched its vaccination program in mid December, officials have administered about 140,000 doses in Cameron, Hidalgo, Willacy and Starr counties, Prot said.

“We’re not getting enough vaccine but we’re working with what we get,” she said.

Selecting vaccine candidates

Across this rural county with a population of about 22,000, six doctors helped tap patients for vaccinations, screening those whose underlying medical conditions put them at highest risk, Jo Ann Lopez, the district’s health care coordinator, said.

“They had to be selective,” she said. “The physicians know their patients and they screened them to see if they were candidates for the vaccine.”

Meanwhile, the clinic’s organizers were also counting on people’s “good faith” to describe the underlying medical conditions they cited as qualifying them for their vaccines, Prot said.

“There’s a lot of obesity, diabetes,” she said, referring to the Rio Grande Valley’s high rates of obesity, diabetes and hypertension. “There’s a lot of morbidity here.”

At higher risk

As she sat in her car after taking her vaccine, Julie Diaz, a 37-year-old teacher from Brownsville who said her obesity helped her qualify for her vaccination, said she registered with the help of the San Perlita school district.

“Out there with the kids, it’s scary,” she said, referring to her fear of contracting the coronavirus. “You never know if they’re sick.”

Nearby, Wendy Perez, 43, a Raymondville dental hygienist, said she qualified as a result of her health care job and underlying medical conditions including diabetes, hypertension and asthma.

“With my job, I’m very concerned,” she said, referring to her fear of contracting COVID-19. “I work with people every day so it’s in the back of your mind. I try to stay home as much as I can. If I have to get groceries, I get groceries. But I’m not out-and-about.”

Smooth operation

For the county’s first vaccination clinic, local officials set their goal at administering 75 doses every 30 minutes, Lopez said.

“I’m very impressed,” Steve Postier, 61, a San Perlita school district teacher who described himself as a diabetic cancer survivor, said. “This clinic is way more organized and faster than I expected. I had an appointment — we all had our (vaccination) time scheduled.”

After people got their vaccines, doctors helped observe them for any reactions, Lopez said.

“Different doctors have closed their clinics to help. They’re assessing. They’re screening to make sure nobody has an allergic reaction,” she said. “It’s a community effort. I’m so proud everybody has come together to help our community.”

First shipment

Early his month, a shipment of 200 doses led to the county’s first vaccinations here.

From the shipment, officials distributed 100 doses to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs a state jail here, and 100 doses to the local state health department office, Frank Torres, the county’s emergency management coordinator who helped request vaccine doses for Friday’s clinic, said at the time.

Before the county received that first shipment, groups of local health care workers and first responders were driving to Harlingen hospitals to get their vaccines, he said.

As part of the vaccine’s national distribution program launched in mid December, officials set health care workers and first responders on top of the list of those scheduled to become the first to receive the vaccine.

Now, state officials are targeting people 65 and older and those suffering underlying medical conditions.

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