Local officials express doubt as Texas governor announces end to COVID restrictions

Vaccines were administered at the Marfa Clinic last month, arriving in a shipment of doses from Midland Memorial Hospital. While vaccinations are getting underway across Texas, the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, announced this week that coronavirus-related orders, including the statewide mask mandate, will expire March 10. Photos by Maisie Crow

TEXAS — Governor Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced his plan to end the mask mandate and lift all restrictions on businesses, restaurants and bars, beginning March 10. The move comes one year into the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, as Texas lags behind almost all other states in vaccinating its residents against the deadly COVID-19 disease. Hours after the governor’s announcement, Texas reported 271 additional Texans dead from COVID-19.

Presidio County Judge Cinderela Guevara said that while the governor’s latest moves sounded positive and like Texas was headed in the right direction, she stressed, “There’s no facts behind it, no medical data behind it.” City of Presidio Mayor John Ferguson called the governor’s actions “unwise,” writing on social media, “It is too early and lives may be unnecessarily put at risk.”

Governor Abbott will continue to allow businesses to impose their own restrictions about capacity or safety, but said in his press conference that state mandates “are no longer needed.”

While more vaccines are on the way with an authorization of the latest one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Guevara said it was too soon to lift statewide orders. “What if that causes a new surge of the disease to be spread when we’re just now more or less controlling it with the safety measures?” she asked.

Abbott once again tied the hands of local leaders, mostly preventing them from putting orders in place in their own communities. Cities and counties are only able to impose COVID-19 restrictions if hospitals in the region’s Trauma Service Area hit 15% of their capacity with COVID patients for seven days straight. Even then, businesses still have to be able to operate with at least 50% capacity. Municipalities cannot impose jail time for violations of their rules, and there cannot be penalties for failure to wear a mask.

“We haven’t even finished vaccinating the 1B population, we haven’t gone on to the regular population, so it’s hard to understand his reasoning to go ahead and undo the mask mandate,” Guevara said.

DSHS Associate Commissioner Imelda Garcia last week encouraged all vaccine providers to stick to vaccinating only 1A and 1B groups. Nevertheless, some are now offering shots on a first come, first serve basis, asking few questions or explicitly announcing they will vaccinate anyone.

Scenic Mountain Medical Center in Big Spring, northeast of Midland, shared on their website, “Although the priorities are currently listed as Phase 1A and Phase 1B, we will not turn away [anyone] that shows up for the vaccine.”

A patient gets his first-round vaccine against COVID-19 in Marfa. Presidio County has vaccinated 44.8% of its population over the age of 16 with at least one dose.

According to data provided by the Department of State Health Services, only 8.9% of Texans over 16 have been fully vaccinated with two doses as of Tuesday. The state has given first dose COVID vaccinations to 16.5% of its residents age 16 and older, leaving Texas trailing behind almost every other state in the country.

While counties are struggling to access the amount of vaccines their residents demand, vaccination rates in Presidio County have steadily increased in the past month. Preventative Care Health Services CEO Linda Molinar, who runs clinics in Alpine, Presidio and Marfa, said her clinic has a list of 2,000 individuals who are still wanting to be vaccinated among Presidio and Brewster Counties, with 100 calling to get on the list just this weekend.

“PCHS vaccinated 1,000 exactly in the past week, just in the city of Presidio,” she said, counting first and second doses.

The state estimates 5,069 people in Presidio County are over 16, and since the vaccine is only approved for those over that age, 5,069 is the target to reach to fully vaccinate the area.

In data from the state on Tuesday, 2,273 Presidio County residents have gotten their first shot, which is 44.8% of the county’s estimated 16+ population. When compared to Texas’ 253 other counties, Presidio County has outpaced every other one, vaccinating the highest percent of its 16+ population.

That calculation favors smaller counties – the number of shots required to vaccinate 1% of 3.6 million eligible Harris County residents versus 1% of 5,069 eligible Presidio County residents – but Presidio County has still outpaced dozens of smaller counties in vaccinating its population.

It’s good news for Presidio County residents, who statistically skew more elderly than other parts of Texas, have more health risks and have less access to nearby high level healthcare.

Certain large shipments of the vaccine likely helped get the county to where it is today. Among other smaller shipments through the past few months, two batches of 500 first doses arrived at DSHS Marfa last week. And in February, Midland Memorial Hospital sent batches of 400 and then 600 doses to PCHS in the city of Presidio and brought 500 doses to the USO Building in Marfa last month, among other shipments of vaccine doses to Presidio County clinics.

Some of those shots delivered to Presidio County went to non-local residents, who traveled from Terlingua, Alpine, Fort Davis, Valentine or elsewhere to get the shot in Presidio County. But likewise, Presidio County residents have also traveled far and wide across West Texas to get a vaccine.

Along with first round vaccine data, the number of second round vaccines in the area is rising as well. On Tuesday, 797 Presidio County residents were fully vaccinated, meaning 15.72% of the county’s estimated 16+ population. That’s more than double Texas’ vaccination rate. To date, the state has fully vaccinated only 6.9% of its 16+ population.

Even if Texans were fully vaccinated, or vaccinated enough to build herd immunity against the pandemic that has ravaged the United States, the CDC at this time is asking people who are vaccinated to continue to maintain physical distance from individuals outside their household, avoid crowds and wear a mask.

The orders lifted by Governor Abbott undo some of the exact mandates that keep Texans in line with CDC guidelines. In its place, the governor instead asked Texans to use personal responsibility.

“I can’t supersede the governor’s orders,” Judge Guevara said, “but I would still encourage and highly recommend people continue to wear their mask and stay a safe distance of six feet apart, until we see for ourselves that percentage-wise, most everyone has been vaccinated.”