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Coronavirus Featured Government

COVID-19 vaccines flow to El Paso’s West Side, rural areas left behind

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El Paso’s COVID-19 vaccination effort is marked by glaring inequality, with about one in five first vaccines going to people in wealthier West El Paso ZIP codes, according to an El Paso Matters analysis of state data released Monday.

Though the West Side and Upper Valley ZIP codes of 79922, 79912, 79932 and 79911 are home to 14% of the county’s population, they account for 22% of people who have received at least one dose as of March 1. 

Far fewer vaccines are going to people in the rural areas of Northwest and East El Paso County. Just 6% of Tornillo’s population has received the first dose and 8% of San Elizario and Anthony residents have gotten their first shot, the lowest in the county.

To see more detail on vaccination rates, hover your cursor over a ZIP code.

The data — the first breakdown by ZIP code — underscores the challenge of providing equitable access to the vaccine

People living in the 79922 ZIP code in the Upper Valley — one of the county’s wealthiest ZIP codes — are five times more likely to have received a vaccine than people living in Tornillo, a working-class and farming community about 40 miles southeast of Downtown El Paso.

Vaccination rates in the four West Side and Upper Valley ZIP codes are the highest, ranging from 19% of 29% of residents having received at least one dose, well above the countywide rate of 15%. In El Paso’s six mostly rural ZIP codes, only 9% of residents have received at least one dose.

‘Our side of town, we get everything last’

The low vaccination rates in the eastern part of the county don’t surprise San Elizario City Administrator Maya Sanchez.

“There’s been this unspoken theory, I guess for lack of a better word, that our side of town, we get everything last — we’re at the bottom of the totem pole,” Sanchez said. “Unfortunately it’s not so much a theory when you have the data of the ZIP codes supporting that as fact.”

San Elizario, a city of approximately 7,900 people with a median income of $26,200, had one of the highest infection rates in the county.

El Paso’s rural ZIP codes were among the hardest hit since the pandemic began a year ago, with 16% of their population testing positive for coronavirus as of Monday. In the West Side and Upper Valley ZIP codes, 12% of the population tested positive.

“If the data supported the fact that we had some of the highest active cases the entire year, why (don’t we) see the response reflect what the problem is here in the valley?” Sanchez said.

San Elizario residents have struggled to register through the county’s two mass vaccination sites, and Sanchez has heard of people traveling to Fort Hancock, Pecos and Midland to get vaccinated. The state counts of vaccines by county and ZIP code are based on where people live, not where they get the shot.

The city of El Paso and University Medical Center of El Paso’s online registration and scheduling systems benefit “those who know technology inside and out,” she said.

The process is even more complicated for Spanish speakers. UMC never translated its registration portal into Spanish and the Spanish version of the city site has translation errors.

Vaccination rates in the city limits

Low vaccination rates aren’t unique to the county’s outlying areas. The lowest rate within El Paso’s city limits is found in 79901, the Downtown and South El Paso neighborhoods that have the lowest income levels in the city. Only about 10% of those residents have received at least one vaccine dose.

Volunteers led by former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke have focused on registering 79901 residents for vaccines and El Paso Department of Public Health staff are going door to door there to register elderly patients.

The three Northeast El Paso ZIP codes — 79904, 79924 and 79934 — also show rates of only about one in 10 residents receiving at least one vaccine dose. However, many Northeast residents have ties to the military and are eligible to receive vaccinations from William Beaumont Army Medical Center or the El Paso Veterans Affairs Health Care System.  Vaccines provided by those federal agencies are not included in the state counts.

Outreach efforts

Precinct 3 Commissioner Iliana Holguin, who represents the Lower Valley, said getting vaccines to Far East El Paso County has been her priority since joining Commissioners Court in January.

“We have tried to do everything that we can to find solutions,” Holguin said. “We knew this was going to happen — we know that the further out into the county you get, the harder it is to be able to register” due to transportation and lack of broadband internet service.

The Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus provided COVID-19 vaccines to people age 75 and older who live in rural Northwest El Paso County. That area has among the lowest vaccination rates in the county. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

The rural parts of El Paso County are 25 miles or more from the mass vaccination sites at the County Coliseum, near El Paso International Airport, the Downtown convention center and Don Haskins Recreation Center.

Student leaders from Tornillo High School went through the community on Friday registering elders for vaccinations, Tornillo Superintendent Rosy Vega-Barrio tweeted.

UMC’s mobile medical unit is collecting data on the number of people in rural areas who are interested in the vaccine, she said. The unit will then return to these communities to administer the vaccine.

The hospital sends 400 weekly doses to its Fabens and Upper Valley clinics and staff call people directly to schedule appointments there.

These doses though are just a fraction of the 6,000-8,000 first dose shipments the county hospital receives weekly.

The vaccination rate in Fabens is one of the lowest in the county, at just under 11%.

County commissioners are limited in their ability to direct the mass vaccination sites on how to distribute their doses, though UMC Chief Executive Officer Jacob Cintron has been receptive to their ideas on ways to get more doses to outlying areas, Holguin said.

The Hospitals of Providence is working to vaccinate seniors in rural areas. It partnered with community groups, churches and the Canutillo Independent School District to schedule appointments with 2,000 people age 75 and older in Anthony, Canutillo, Vinton and Westway,  hospital spokesperson Monique Poessiger said. The hospital also pulled names from the city of El Paso’s registration list.

The Canutillo school district helped transport people to their appointment.

“A lot of them just felt kind of lost within the system,” Poessiger said of the seniors she spoke to at the hospital’s vaccination clinics. “They were really shocked and surprised when their phone rings and it’s someone saying we have a vaccine for you.”

The Hospitals of Providence will expand to the eastern part of the county as it receives more doses from the state, she said.

Looking ahead for rural areas

Sanchez, San Elizario’s city administrator, would like to see UMC send a portion of its weekly doses to the city of Socorro, which has unveiled a plan to create a community vaccination site. 

Socorro Mayor Ivy Avalos wrote to El Paso County Judge Ricardo Samaniego last month seeking a transfer of “an allocation of COVID-19 vaccines from its vaccination hub” to her city. Avalos has also asked the state to send doses directly to the city.

Socorro’s 79927 ZIP code has a vaccination rate of 13%. There are no vaccine providers in this ZIP code, Ivalos wrote in her letter to the county judge.

Were her city to receive doses, it could vaccinate 1,000 Socorro and far East El Paso residents weekly at one of its community centers. By working with Elite Medical Transport ambulance service, paramedics could take the shots to homebound residents or those without transportation.

“If there is a plan in place, which Socorro has been very transparent about, then let’s support that plan rather than starting from scratch or … duplicating efforts,” Sanchez said.

Cover photo: A woman who lives in rural Northwest El Paso County receives a COVID-19 vaccine at The Hospitals of Providence Transmountain Campus. (Photo courtesy of The Hospitals of Providence)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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