HARLINGEN — For nearly 11 months, the coronavirus has turned Juan Cobos and his family into prisoners who’ve rarely left their home for fear of catching the potentially deadly disease.
At 71, the retired schoolteacher who suffers hypertension has been “sheltering-in-place” with wife Esther, 66, a diabetic, and their 35-year-old son Rafael, who has Down syndrome.
For his family, COVID-19 would put them at high risk of hospitalization — or even death.
Like millions of Americans, they’ve been praying for a chance to take the new coronavirus vaccine to protect them from the virus that’s contributed to the deaths of about 365,000 in the United States.
On Friday, they were among 2,000 people who spent much of the night before in their cars in Harlingen before taking the vaccine at Cameron County’s first community vaccination clinic.
“We’ve been waiting for this,” Cobos said. “I’m very, very relieved. We’re very concerned. We stay mostly at home. We hardly ever go out except sometimes very early in the morning to Walmart or Sam’s. Shelter-in-place — it’s not easy.”
When Esmeralda Guajardo, the county’s health administrator, opened the clinic at 7 a.m., she planned to give the county’s 1,000 remaining doses of the Moderna vaccine to people waiting in long lines of cars outside the Casa del Sol community center on Madison Avenue.
Days before the clinic, the county had requested health officials ship more doses of the vaccine, Josh Ramirez, Harlingen’s public health director, said.
But the shipment hadn’t come in.
Then at about 9:30 a.m., a Federal Express truck pulled up with enough doses to give the vaccine to 1,000 more people, Guajardo said.
“It came to us as a surprise,” she said. “We were not expecting that at all.”
The vaccine’s long wait
Like COVID-19 changed Cobo’s life, it’s also held Carol Hahn hostage.
“Since March, I’ve been quarantining,” Hahn, 77, a Winter Texan from Charlotte, North Carolina, said. “I have a very bad immune system. I only see my doctor. I haven’t been able to see my grandchildren.”
On Friday, she and her husband Richard received the vaccine they’ve been waiting for.
“I’m ecstatic,” Hahn, a retired teacher, said. “I’ve been searching and found this. We’re one of the lucky thousand.”
Two-step vaccination process
Since 3 a.m., Ignacio Garcia and his wife Frances waited in a long line of cars to get their vaccines more than six hours later.
“No one lines up like this to buy football tickets,” said Garcia, 79, a retired school administrator from La Feria who’s a heart patient suffering from diabetes and hypertension.
Like others, Garcia praised organizers for their work.
“It was very well organized,” he said. “I’m very impressed with the police department and the people inside know what’s going on. They’re always following up — ‘How do you feel? Do you need any help?’”
After taking the vaccine at the Casa del Sol building, people stepped into the adjacent community center, where officials observed them for any side effects or reactions.
“We’re just making sure they don’t have any reaction to the vaccine — making sure they’re OK,” Rene Perez, transport director for South Texas Emergency Care Foundation, the city’s ambulance service, said. “We haven’t had anyone with any kind of reaction.”
Perez knows about the vaccine.
Since October, he’s volunteered at Moderna’s vaccine clinical trials in McAllen.
“I’m the guinea pig,” he said. “The trials were designed to get the right dose.”
On Feb. 5, those who received the clinic’s vaccine will take their second and final dose, Perez said.
Smooth traffic flow
For about a week, county officials worked with city leaders to hold the clinic at Casa del Sol.
“It’s a partnership effort,” Guajardo said. “They offered the building and we just worked around it.”
City Manager Dan Serna said officials picked Casa del Sol over other sites such as the Harlingen Convention Center.
“We looked at different sites and this site really lends itself as a good vaccination site — we’re vaccinating at Casa del Sol and then moving to the community center for observation,” he said.
Despite the neighborhood setting, Serna said the site allowed police to smoothly direct traffic.
“With residential streets, we have side streets to provide alternative routes so we just redirect traffic,” he said. “We’re going through neighborhood streets and parking lots, snaking traffic through. We can do this much easier here than on the frontage road or expressway. It’s working pretty well considering this is the first time we’re setting this up.”