‘Strike force’ of vaccinators plan tri-county visit, as scarce doses are leading locals to travel far

It's been a slow vaccine rollout in the tri-county, with just 1,100 doses arriving in the last seven weeks.

TRI-COUNTY – County officials this week sought help from outside the Big Bend area, tapping into the 17-county Regional Advisory Council “J” they are a part of in hopes of bringing a “strike force” of vaccinators to the area soon. In the meantime, some tri-county residents with health risks have traveled hundreds of miles to seek more immediate vaccinations.

It has been a slow rollout in the seven weeks since the vaccine arrived in Texas, with just 1,100 doses making their way into the tri-county since late December.

This week, 100 doses of Moderna arrived to Fort Davis Family Practice, which marks the first time the state has allocated COVID vaccines to Jeff Davis County. In preparation, the rural practice has a waiting list of patients that well outnumbers the vaccines arriving.

But not all 100 doses will go to Fort Davis residents, said Celina Esquivel, the office manager at the family practice. Hospital employees in Brewster County who qualify under the state’s “1A” designation are first in line to get vaccinated in Fort Davis this Thursday.

After the “1A” vaccines are given, those from the “1B” group (people over 65 or with certain health risks) will get vaccinated. Esquivel said the clinic has prioritized the remaining vaccine doses based on their patients’ health statuses, curating the list in hopes of mitigating the most risk. According to Esquivel, hypothetically speaking, that prioritization might look like someone who is 48 with cancer and COPD getting the shot before someone who is 65 and healthy, despite both being eligible for the vaccine.

Clinics in the tri-county, often working with limited staff and resources, have at times struggled to handle the additional workload of mass vaccinations. Earlier this month, Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara began convening meetings about the vaccine, where officials could discuss and strategize about the rollout of the effort to immunize against COVID-19.

First she invited tri-county officials, and as the weeks have worn on, the weekly Tuesday meetings have grown, adding in healthcare providers, the Rio Grande Council of Governments, state officials and this week, the “J” Regional Advisory Council (JRAC).

As Guevara informed officials last week that a larger share of vaccines was forecasted to arrive here in February, hospital and clinic executives explained their capacity for administering vaccinations, saying sharing the task of vaccination was necessary. For example, Preventative Care Health Services was having to disrupt their normal operations each time they received a batch of the Moderna vaccine. The process of giving the immunizations took hours of time away from their regular patients, using staff to answer phones, coordinate vaccine appointments, inject the medicine and promptly file documentation with ImmTrac and with the Texas Department of Emergency Management. With more vaccines on the way, they wondered how they would face the immunization task.

One week later, as the tri-county vaccine meeting convened again, JRAC offered resources that could solve some of the stresses that are hitting local clinics and the hospital. Danny Updike, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview Wednesday that Medical Center Hospital in Odessa and Midland Memorial Hospital in Midland have agreed to work with rural counties to come out and give vaccines to 1A and 1B-eligible people.

While working out logistics will come first, Updike said, “I think they’re thinking to get started within the next couple weeks if everything works out.” Though it’s not all set in stone, Judge Guevara also thinks the arrival of Midland Memorial Hospital workers, who are slated to help Jeff Davis, Presidio and Brewster counties, is just weeks away.

In the call, Guevara pressed JRAC to not just arrive in Marfa and assume it would help all of Presidio County. “It’s well worth the effort to go to Presidio,” she said in an interview after the meeting. At this time, the plan is for the strike force to visit and vaccinate residents in both cities in Presidio County.

As vaccines still trickle into the area directly from the state’s allocations, Esquivel, the Fort Davis Family Practice office manager, said the clinic don’t know “if or when we will receive another round of the first dose,” and they are urging patients to get it “wherever you can,” in the meantime.

In the tri-county, some residents are already driving hundreds of miles to larger cities where vaccines are more available. Marfa residents Rob Gungor and Simone Rubi set off to Pecos on Friday to receive the Pfizer vaccination.

Gungor, a musician and co-owner (with Rubi) of Do Your Thing coffee shop, “lived with a lot of fear and anxiety” as the coronavirus pandemic took hold of the country last year. He has asthma, and while he was able to lose considerable weight during 2020, his BMI and respiratory condition still posed a risk high enough to put him in the 1B category.

“When you’re an asthmatic you know too well the feeling of not being able to breathe,” he said, “and so the idea of being at greater risk of suffocating to death really rocked me to my core.” With his first dose of the vaccine administered last week and his booster shot set for later this February, he’s already feeling a sense of optimism about the future.

Earlier this month, Marfa resident Sara Button saw information about vaccines in Midland and signed up her mother, adding her own name to the list as well. Soon she was notified both were eligible for the vaccine this week. The pair will be making a 2 hour and 53 minute trip each way to get vaccinated at the Horseshoe Arena in Midland.

Though Button’s health status qualifies her under 1B, she said she has mixed emotions about how soon she will receive it. “I’m really grateful we are able to get the vaccine, but I feel kind of guilty because there are so many people I feel need the vaccine more than I or my mom do. We stay home.”

“I wish there was a plan for teachers or other people who are out more,” Button said. “The priority is strange to me, but I’m grateful to be able to get the vaccine.”

In the tri-county, some residents await appointments at their local doctor’s office, are unable to travel or aren’t sure whether they should hold off on getting on lists until more vulnerable patients have been able to get vaccinated.

But Christina Wright, a nurse at the Department of State Health Services clinic in Marfa, said directives from the state are that anyone eligible for the vaccine in 1A or 1B should take any chance at vaccination they can find. “Go absolutely anywhere you can get it. It doesn’t even matter if you go to New Mexico,” she urged this week. “Right now, if you can get it, get it.”

For more information about finding vaccines, visit our website at www.bigbendsentinel.com.