Listen to Austin 360 Radio

'Our community embraces vaccines': How El Paso went from COVID-19 hotspot to 71% vaccination rate

Anthony Jackson
El Paso Times

Far from the national headlines that once showed a city in crisis more than eight months ago with a staggeringly high amount of COVID-19 cases and deaths, El Paso's numbers of note now are its high vaccination rates.

As the Delta variant tears through regions of the country, preying particularly on the unvaccinated, the Sun City has become the model for how to bounce back from a pandemic, surpassing 71% of the population 12 and older being fully vaccinated.

Hospital capacity is low enough that the Delta variant-ravaged areas of Texas are now looking to El Paso to take in patients as their hospitals begin to run out of beds. Some hospitals have been been getting requests for patient transfers across Texas from cities such as Beaumont, more than 800 miles away.

Hospital transfers are not counted as COVID cases, but instead as other hospital services.

Days before the city would report its first three cases of the Delta variant, Dr. Hector Ocaranza, El Paso City/County Health Authority, said the reason it's taken so long for the variant to be detected in new infections is because the county's high vaccination rate was keeping it at bay.

El Paso County COVID-19 vaccine tracker:59% of people fully vaccinated

He said after the city reaches a vaccination rate of 75% of residents, El Paso will continue to see positive cases and hospitalizations in unvaccinated people and breakthrough infections in vaccinated people. 

Data on the epstrong.org dashboard, on Aug. 19, shows 1,207 breakthrough cases have been reported, with 106 patients requiring hospitalization; 19 breakthrough patients have been placed in intensive care and seven on ventilators. Twelve breakthrough deaths have been reported.

"We will see some ups and downs in the number of cases, and we'll foresee that we will come with more recommendations as who's going to be the group of people that are going to be receiving a booster dose," Ocaranza said. "But we need to look at more data, more of the science, more of how the virus behaves and continues to mutate."

But how did El Paso go from a hotbed of COVID-19 infections and death to one of the most vaccinated cities in the country? Leaders point to not only local government rollout of vaccines, but the thing they say caused the out-of-control spread in the first place: El Paso is a family-oriented city.

Need to get a COVID test? Here are locations in El Paso

COVID spread quickly in family-friendly El Paso — but so did the vaccine

Local health officials and leaders begged residents to socially distance. Former El Paso Mayor Dee Margo was among those who knew it would be difficult to  persuade El Pasoans to not be around their family members. He said the community's urge to be with family members is cultural.

"When people go shopping in El Paso, it's like a family event," Margo said. 

The result of pandemic fatigue had finally set in as families and friends grew tired of being cooped in their homes.

"It started to show in a rather significant way," Dr. Carlo Hatem, a pulmonologist at the Hospitals of Providence Memorial Campus, said. "People didn't want to be alone anymore; they were seeking contact with family and friends."

El Paso County was one of the hardest hit regions for COVID-19 infections, cases averaged more than 1,000 new cases a day in November. Since the pandemic began, more than 2,700 people have died of COVID-19 in El Paso. Inmates and Texas National Guard members had to help move the dead from overflowing morgues to mobile refrigerated units.

COVID-19 cases peaked on Nov. 7, 2020 when 2,643 infections were reported in one day. Cases thereafter began to fall, but it wouldn't be until Dec. 4, 2020 for the county's seven-day average to be below 500 infections a day. 

COVID-19 deaths, on the other hand, continued to rise and fall with a seven-day average, exceeding more than 15 deaths a day for almost two months, before steadily declining after Jan. 25, 2021.  

Vaccines entered the arms of El Pasoans on Dec. 14, 2020, and didn't peak until the week of April 5, 2021, when more than 74,000 people in El Paso County receiving a vaccine.

Pandemic response:US plans to deliver 8.5 million COVID vaccines to Mexico 'in the coming weeks'

Sharing COVID vaccine knowledge in multi-generational households

Ocaranza said El Paso's matriarchal households helped promote families to get vaccinated because grandmothers and great-grandmothers lived through vaccination campaigns for polio and measles. 

"Our culture has been very accepting of the vaccines because we have multi-generational homes, those matriarchs who who still remember the effects of polio, the effects of measles," Ocaranza said. "Our community embraces vaccines, and not just the COVID vaccine, but many other vaccines in which we're leading the state in vaccination efforts."

Samantha Garcia, a registered nurse at The Hospitals of Providence Sierra Campus, in an April 28 interview with El Paso Times, said she was scared of the vaccine's potential side effects at first because of how new it was.

Story continues below. 

While her coworkers around her were getting vaccinated, she began to feel more comfortable about getting the shot, but she started receiving messages from her family telling her to wait to see how other people react to the vaccine.

"They were just scared that it was a different vaccine and like it's new," Garcia said. "They were just scared of the unknown."

Garcia and her family eventually received the vaccine. Garcia said they changed their mind because they realized the benefits outweigh the risks. She said they wanted to protect each other.

"Your mom and your grandma, they have a big impact on you even as an adult. You're always going to care about your family," Garcia said. "So they were like: 'We're sorry we encouraged you not to, and we think it's time that we all get it together.'"

July 2021 file photo of Nevaeh Garcia getting her first shot of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at William D. Slider Middle School in El Paso after the city partnered with Socorro Independent School District to offer vaccinations to people 12 years and older.

Dr. Harold Delasalas, an allergist-immunologist with Nomi Health, said the company held free, family-oriented  popup vaccination clinics, which featured snacks, games and music, at Aoy Elementary School and at the Horizon Fire Department. 

"It's been a great experience, not just getting patients immunized and protected, but also learning about their stories, their communities," Delasalas said. "We want to ensure that these patients get access to care and get good, quality education on what's going on."

Through their popup clinics, the health group was able to  administer more than 360 vaccinations to residents.

Delasalas said the most important lesson learned was recognizing family as a way to help spread vaccinations and awareness of COVID-19. 

One instance of this, Delasalas said, was when two daughters at a vaccination event pressed their hesitant father to get a vaccine with them. 

"I feel like for many Hispanics, their grandma or their mother telling them, 'You should get vaccinated' is a bigger motivation than the surgeon general or the president of the United States," Delasalas said. 

Vaccine access, education biggest obstacles for Latino community

Dr. Manuel Padilla, a family medicine doctor and the founder and owner of Sun City Medical Clinic, and who is a part of El Paso Integral Care Independent Physician Association, said the biggest treatment obstacles for Hispanics and Latinos are a lack of health care education and access to health services. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a study, last updated Aug. 5, that found Hispanic Black and Hispanic or Latino people had a higher rates of hospitalization than non-Hispanic white people.

More:Vaccine hesitancy concern for city and county; Latino community urged to get vaccinated

The median percent of Hispanic or Latinos hospitalized with COVID-19 is at 36% compared to 16% for white people. 

"We've had good outreach of educating the community as to the importance of this vaccine," Padilla said. "And couple that with the fact that this vaccine is accessible and free, well then you get a great combination, and we're getting our community vaccinated."

Dr. Manuel Padilla, a family medicine doctor and the founder and owner of Sun City Medical Clinic, sees Gregorio Aceves Miranda for a routine visit Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in El Paso. Dr. Padilla has been encouraging his patients to get vaccinated and providing information to ease any concerns they may have about the vaccine.

Dr. Jenny Yip, a behavioral and cognitive psychologist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine, said uncertainty, elevated by significant stories and misinformation, can lead to vaccine hesitancy. 

Yip said she sees vaccine hesitancy as being a theme in many of her patients recently.

One mother, she said, had a lot of doubt about the vaccine because of misinformation and from being surrounded by stories about the vaccine's rare side effects. 

"What I had to remind her was, yes, in the past there have been rare side effects, but there are rare side effects with most things," Yip said. "People are much more afraid of getting on a plane than they are driving in the car, yet the death rate from being in a car is much higher than being on a plane."

'Time doesn’t stop; why should we?' Three El Paso students win $1,000 grants to pursue careers

El Paso officials worked to get vaccines in arms

During the early stages of the vaccine rollout, El Paso city officials prioritized vaccinating elderly populations 65 years or older by taking vaccines to those residents during senior vaccination events.

Margo said city staff he worked with helped lay down infrastructure that would be crucial to providing vaccines to low-income populations. 

"I think that's the reason we've had such high vaccination rates in our community, and especially with those over 65 (years old.)," Margo said. "We're way ahead of the game compared to anywhere else."

Dee Margo

City initiatives also focused on bridging the accessibility gap for younger populations.

Vaccines were brought to where younger people and their families would be congregating, such as the Downtown farmers market or at an opening of a new park on El Paso's East Side

Mobile vaccination clinics popped up around the city, vaccination wait times dropped to less than six minutes and many clinics began administering shots to walk-in patients.

On Feb. 15, 2021, more than 200,000 people were on the city's waiting list to receive a vaccination. Nearly 70 days later, health care workers vaccinated more than 300,000 people in the El Paso area, clearing the city's waitlist.

El Paso Mayor Oscar Leeser said it was crucial to "speak with one voice."

"I would like to see everybody in the city of El Paso vaccinated," Leeser said. "Of course it's not mandatory, but we've done a really good job of protecting ourselves, and we need to continue to get vaccinated."

More:New COVID-19 delta variant raises concerns in El Paso as it spreads in United States

El Pasoans line up Saturday, April 24, 2021, to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at Grace Gardens Event Center in El Paso. Moderna and Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines were available to anyone older than 16. People under the age of 18 needed parental permission.

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, heralded the Office of Emergency Management as well as various hospitals and community organizers for their efforts.

"There was this incredible unity among our institutions to get those vaccines in people's arms," Escobar said. "That infrastructure was really important."

Escobar said El Pasoans' motivation to get vaccinated also helped bring the community closer to herd immunity. 

"The depth of the tragedy that we lived through last year really, I think, motivated a lot of folks to get vaccinated," Escobar said. 

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso

Hatem said civic and medical leaders in the community helped push El Paso's vaccination rates to where they are today. 

"That has opened the way for acceptance, because there was hesitancy in the very beginning," Hatem said. "I think the strong signals that came out of our medical community and our civic leaders to take the vaccine is what made the difference."

El Paso isn't out of the woods with COVID-19, but it could be worse

Compared to other counties in Texas, El Paso is among the Texas cities with the highest vaccination rates. Texas, as a whole, has a full vaccination rate of 44%. 

As the county inches closer to vaccinating 75% of El Pasoans, achieving herd immunity for the community, coronavirus cases are on the rise again. 

More:El Paso reports three COVID-19 delta variant cases, all in unvaccinated patients

Nico Tejeda, the group chief executive officer for The Hospitals of Providence, said a "significant portion" of those hospitalized are mostly unvaccinated and between 18 to 30 years old. 

"I believe that our high vaccination rate will help us avoid the fate that many other communities are going through right now," Tejeda said. "However, that doesn't make me feel better because even one patient in the hospital with COVID is one too many, and we can do something about that."

El Paso needs another 4.5% or 30,374 people to get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to achieve herd immunity, something City Manager Tommy Gonzalez said, during a July City Council work session, will be reached in an "August-September" time frame.

King County, the second-least populated county in North Central Texas with 265 residents according to the 2020 Census, has the lowest vaccination rate in the Lone Star state with a fully vaccinated rate at 14%.

For counties along the Rio Grande, bordering Mexico, vaccination rates are mostly above 60%.

Dr. Michael Dobbs, vice dean of clinical affairs at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine, said the key component pushing high vaccination rates is the sharing of information with border communities along the Rio Grande Valley about how, when and where to get vaccinated  

"I think one thing is that it's a relatively cohesive community," Dobbs said. "From what I've observed, and being here for two years, the whole community wants to be vaccinated; you'll also see it in people wearing masks and socially distancing — once they bought in, they were all in."

Presidio County, located in West Texas and south of Jeff Davis County, has the highest vaccination rate of people fully vaccinated, 12 years and older, at 90%. 

Other Texas counties, Dallas County, Travis County, Bexar County, Harris County and Tarrant County, with large cities, like Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth, respectively, have full vaccination rates for people 12 years and older ranging from 52% to 64%.

While El Paso can't rest on its laurels, it has served as an example of a city doing well in inoculating its residents.

"It just goes to show that this success story can be a success story in other communities in Texas," Delasalas said. "They can take a lesson from this playbook."

Where to get vaccinated

Walk-up COVID-19 vaccinations are available to members of the public for free at the El Paso convention center, 1 Civic Center Plaza.

Vaccinations are available from noon to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday.

Residents also can register and schedule appointments for the vaccine with the city of El Paso by visiting EPCovidVaccine.com and clicking on the registration form or by calling 915-212-6843.

Those who have received their first shot but not their second dose are urged to call the city's COVID-19 hotline at 915-212-6843.

More:Need to get tested for coronavirus? Looking for the COVID vaccine? Here are the locations

More:Texas won’t require schools to conduct contact tracing if student contracts COVID-19

Anthony Jackson may be reached at ADJackson@elpasotimes.com and @TonyAnjackson on Twitter.