Overwhelming response to first Hidalgo County vaccine clinic

MERCEDES — The first person showed up to Hidalgo County’s initial community COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Mercedes almost 30 hours early. A few minutes before the clinic officially opened at 8 a.m. Tuesday, the county announced on social media they had reached capacity and began turning people away.

After being vaccinated, people wait 15 minutes as recommended by the CDC to check for adverse reactions in the observation area Tuesday at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic on the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show grounds in Mercedes.(Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

“This is one of many clinics to come,” Eddie Olivarez, Hidalgo County chief administrative officer for the Department of Health and Human Services, said.

Hidalgo County distributed 800 doses to people who showed up to the event held at the Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show Grounds in Mercedes, and they plan to distribute 800 more in a clinic to be held Thursday in La Joya.

Altogether, nearly 26,000 vaccines were sent to Hidalgo County providers, but only 7,808 have been administered, according to the latest data from the Texas Department of State and Health Services.

Interest in receiving the vaccine among medical professionals lagged, but the general public demonstrated greater engagement at the first clinic.

Rolando Zarate, 54, a teacher from Edinburg, showed up to get in line at 2:30 a.m. Monday morning. He wasn’t sure if his teaching schedule would allow him to go, but “I found out that we weren’t going to be back yet,” he said. “This is a sign that I need to be over there and go get in line.”

Zarate is not a healthcare worker nor is he in the tier above 65 years of age that would make him eligible to receive the vaccine. Other health conditions would make him eligible as an adult of 18 or older.

Chalo and Lupita Gonzalez celebrate their 57th anniversary and receiving their first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday outside their home in Weslaco. The couple got their vaccines together at the COVID-19 clinic in Mercedes. (Denise Cathey/The Brownsville Herald)

A large, weedy field served as a staging area where hundreds of vehicles were parked for hours with patient people who showed up and stayed overnight. That wasn’t how Lupita and Chalo Gonzalez, both 79, expected to spend the first hours of their 57th anniversary.

They showed up around 4 a.m. after they learned of the vaccine in news reports.

At first they were confused about taking a printed and pre-filled registration application, which the county preferred but also offered on-site. Vehicles began moving into the grounds around 7:30 a.m., Lupita said. It took them eight hours overall to go from the parking lot and through the three-room process.

Spacious accommodations were provided. Three rooms that could fit hundreds of people at a time were reduced to groups of 100. People sat in socially-distanced chairs wiped clean after use while they waited to get registered, vaccinated and observed for side effects.

“I took off my Band-Aid. No blood; no nothing,” Lupita Gonzalez said, adding that she nor her husband felt any soreness.

First responders with the Mercedes Fire Department were on site in case of adverse side effects. Common side effects to the Moderna vaccine include pain, tenderness and swelling of the lymph nodes in the same arm of the injection, swelling (hardness), and redness.

The FDA also reports there are general side effects of fatigue, headache, muscle pain, joint pain, chills, nausea and vomiting, and fever.

The Gonzalezes described the process as smooth but noted a problem with restroom access during the hours-long wait. A few of the people waiting in line expressed similar concerns on Monday night.

“I’m a coffee drinker, and my husband said, ‘Tomorrow you take it easy with your coffee,’” Lupita said.

“A lot of people were walking around looking for potty rooms,” Chalo said. He shrugged it off saying, “You can’t have it all.”

They didn’t plan to spend their time waiting for vaccines, but “it was a nice gift,” Lupita said. “Now we have something to look forward to,” jumped in Chalo.

The travel-prone couple loves to travel but the concern of their four children have kept them home since the pandemic started. Now, they’re thinking of where they could go next.

But that’s later. Tuesday afternoon, after celebrating their anniversary with a midday lunch, all they wanted to do was take a nap, and rest.