Staff from El Paso County Emergency Services District 2 fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

El Paso shifted in recent days to something unthinkable just weeks earlier: wait lists are no more and people can visit a walk-up COVID-19 vaccination site.

There are more shots than people wanting to get vaccinated, El Paso officials say — something seen across Texas and the country.

“It seems we’re getting to the point that most people eager to get vaccinated have gotten at least their first dose,” Imelda Garcia, chair of the state’s vaccine allocation panel, said during an April 22 media briefing.

In El Paso, young people, especially men, have the lowest vaccination rates. Rates in the county’s rural areas continue to lag behind wealthier, whiter and more urban areas.

Officials are trying to make it as convenient as possible for El Pasoans to get vaccinated to reach the threshold needed to stop the spread of the virus. Experts say messages targeting specific groups will be important in reaching those who’ve been reluctant to get vaccinated.

As of Wednesday, 399,471 people in El Paso County, about 62% of those eligible for the vaccine, had received at least one dose, according to Texas Department of State Health Services data. Those numbers don’t include shots administered by the El Paso VA Health Care System or the U.S. Department of Defense. 

Young men between the ages of 16 and 39 account for nearly two of every five El Pasoans yet to receive any vaccine, an El Paso Matters analysis of state vaccination data shows. The COVID-19 vaccine is only available for people 16 and older.

Overall, men account for 58% of El Paso’s eligible unvaccinated population. For each age group analyzed, men had lower vaccination rates than women.

People under 30 have lowest vaccination rates

Younger age groups for both genders have lower vaccination rates than older ages. About two-thirds of men and half of women aged 16 to 29 have not yet received any COVID-19 vaccine doses.

Texas expanded vaccine eligibility to everyone under age 50 on March 29, though anyone 16 and over has been able to be vaccinated for months if they claimed a health condition that made them vulnerable to COVID-19 complications.

Higher rates of unvaccinated young people could be the result of a few factors, said Theodore Cooper, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso who oversaw February focus groups with residents on the fence about getting vaccinated. The groups were part of the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation’s “Reduce the Risk” campaign.

Younger people were less likely to adhere to preventative behaviors overall, he said, largely because they’ve heard they’re less likely to get severely ill from the coronavirus. Other young people held off for “empathic” reasons, wanting to let those more at risk of complications and death get vaccinated first.

It’s important for vaccine providers, like the city and county, to emphasize that everyone is at risk, Cooper said.

Nationwide, young people are now getting infected at higher rates as more contagious coronavirus strains become dominant.

Health care workers, family are effective messengers

El Paso officials have said at least 75% of residents need to be fully vaccinated to stop the spread of the virus.

One thing working in El Paso’s favor is its high rate of vaccination compliance for other vaccine-preventable diseases. Very few focus group participants expressed anti-vaccine sentiments as the reason for their hesitancy about getting the COVID-19 shot, Cooper said.

“We didn’t see a lot of hard no’s,” he said. “We saw a lot of, ‘we’ll see.’ … Their readiness to get vaccinated could increase. They weren’t recalcitrant completely.”

Maria Badillo, 68, receives a COVID-19 vaccine at the El Paso County Courthouse earlier this month as part of an effort to vaccinate farmworkers. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

Effective and targeted messaging is needed to combat hesitancy, he said. Focus groups participants want to hear from health care professionals and frontline workers about the benefits of getting vaccinated rather than elected officials — “the people that see day-in and day-out the impact it’s (the vaccine) having.”

They also want to hear from people who like them were initially hesitant about getting the vaccine but got the shot and are glad they did.

Family and friends are effective messengers, particularly when it comes to communicating that getting the shot lets you and others safely spend time with loved ones.

Access remains a barrier

Increased media attention on vaccine hesitancy, rather than vaccine safety and benefits, can lead more people to hold off getting the shot, said Kristina Mena, campus dean of the UTHealth School of Public Health in El Paso.

“One thing I think has happened in recent months is that there are so many stories about vaccine hesitancy that might even have exasperated the problem,” Mena said.

Beyond proactive messaging, making the vaccine as accessible as possible is needed to boost the county’s vaccination rates, she said.

An El Paso Matters analysis of state data shows that fewer people in rural areas, which have lower incomes and larger populations of Latinos, have been vaccinated than those in wealthier areas with large white populations.

Less than 40% of residents of the outlying communities of San Elizario, Fabens, Tornillo, Canutillo and Anthony have been partially vaccinated, the analysis shows. Northeast ZIP codes also had rates below 40%, which could be due to state data not capturing doses going to El Paso’s military community.

About 25,000 vaccines have been administered at Fort Bliss. Numbers from the VA were not immediately available.

Beyond walk-up sites and pop-up clinics, providers should bring the vaccine directly to people without transportation or childcare through in-home vaccination efforts, Mena said.

“I think it’s important that we continue as a community to bring those resources to those who might have trouble accessing the vaccine and not just assume that there’s a lot more vaccine hesitancy than there may actually be.”

Cover photo: Staff from El Paso County Emergency Services District 2 fill syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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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.