The demand for the COVID-19 vaccine is high, but the limited supply is leading many El Pasoans to drive hundreds of miles for a shot.
More than 640,000 El Pasoans are above the age of 16 but fewer than 100,000 have been fully vaccinated, according to the dashboard provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services. So, El Pasoans are turning elsewhere.
As of March 5, Midland Health says nearly 1,300 El Pasoans were vaccinated in the Permian Basin city 300 miles from home.
“What’s a three- to four-hour drive to ease the worry of losing another family member to COVID?” said Adriano Perez, a 28-year-old El Pasoan with underlying health conditions.
For Perez, their motivation comes from family and loss. COVID-19 claimed the life of their uncle last summer.
“He was the life of the party and in many ways, the soul of our family,” Perez said.
The loss is still too emotional to discuss at length. Perez explained that several other family members work in home health care, yet no one could get an appointment in El Paso, so they turned to Midland.
“I felt an immediate sense of relief when I scheduled the appointment,” Perez said.
For 58-year-old Kimberly McNally, the motivation stems from her own health, her work as a preschool teacher in West El Paso and the promise of a return to normalcy for her students.
“I fall into a priority category, but was never called (in El Paso),” McNally said. “I work with children with special needs so it was important!”
The demand in El Paso far outweighs the availability of the vaccine. The city registration process is slow, while the process at UMC is overwhelmed with the site crashing every time slots are available.
“I had a month waiting for the city to call me back and I did some attempts to register at some of the UMC events without any success,” said 32-year-old Claudia Renteria, who has now received both vaccines doses in Midland.
Russell Meyers, the president and chief executive officer at Midland Health, says Midland doesn’t have a surplus of the vaccine, but their demand has dropped locally and now they’re seeing travelers.
Meyers said the system the state of Texas uses to register people for the vaccine asks for an address, but no one can be turned away based on where they live.
“The rules say don’t pay attention to their geography,” Meyers said.
The four-hour drive wasn’t a concern for Renteria, who fits into vaccine category 1B due to her weight, but was unable to get an appointment in El Paso.
“The process of the city of El Paso has been very slow. They should follow up in a way that everybody knows what to expect and have certainty of when you would be vaccinated.”
According to Midland Health, the typical turnaround from registration to receiving the first dose is less than a week.
“For the most part, we can get you in within a week,” Meyers said. “In most cases, it’s faster than that … for the typical person, it’s two or three days.”
For McNally, she was able to register on March 6 and get an appointment on March 7.
“The entire process in Midland was seamless. When I arrived, the entire process took 15 minutes,” McNally said.
Perez saw a similar turnaround, but was able to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so they won’t need to travel to Midland for a second dose.
Although Meyers says it is rare, Midland Health has also seen out-of-state travelers. The most popular state of origin is New Mexico, since it is in close proximity, but he said some people have traveled from as far away as Florida.
“It doesn’t say Texas residents only, so if people are willing to make the effort to come here…we wouldn’t necessarily turn them away,” Meyers said.
However, with the mask mandate in Texas being lifted on Wednesday, Meyers expressed some concern over travelers who may be coming from cities with a higher level of community spread of COVID-19.
Midland Health is requiring everyone to still wear their masks throughout the vaccination process at all of their locations.
Cover photo: Adriano Perez of El Paso gets a COVID-19 vaccine at a Midland Walmart. (Photo courtesy of Adriano Perez)