As Texas Struggles to Get COVID Vaccines, Rural Communities Are Hit Especially Hard

People wait at the vaccine clinic being held at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center on January 26, 2021.

People wait at the vaccine clinic being held at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center on January 26, 2021. (Jayme Lozano)

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January 29, 2021

Manuel Mendez holds out his immunization record showing he has received the first round of COVID-19 vaccine. The 58-year-old lives with his elderly mother in Levelland, Texas, a rural community of about 13,000 residents, 25 miles west of Lubbock.

After open heart surgery left him unable to work, he had to move into his mother’s apartment. He has diabetes and high blood pressure on top of the coronary heart disease that forced him to undergo invasive surgery. “Sometimes I think to myself, Well I’m a walking time-bomb,” he says, “but, you know, I’d like to be around a little bit longer.”

That’s why getting the inoculation to protect him from the coronavirus was never a question. Not only does he suffer from comorbidities that could be a death sentence for a COVID victim, his 80-year-old mother refuses to get vaccinated. So, to protect both of them, he decided a needle in his arm was the best way to go. Where he was going to receive it was the question.

“Here in Levelland, I don’t know of any place that’s offering [the COVID-19 vaccine],” Mendez says. He put his name on a local pharmacy’s list over a month ago but never heard anything.

Mendez settled his sights on Levelland’s big-city neighbor and the region’s medical hub, Lubbock.

Listen as Manuel Mendez, a 58-year-old Levelland resident, persistently tries to get his COVID-19 vaccine to protect both himself and his aging mother.

Throughout the pandemic, rural communities in the Panhandle have struggled to keep up in the fight against the coronavirus. At first they faced limited testing supplies and personal protective equipment. In the fall, they didn’t have enough hospital beds for patients. Now they can’t seem to get vaccines into arms fast enough.

Meanwhile, 25 miles away in Lubbock, shipments of the vaccine arrived in late December. By early January, a vaccine clinic was hastily opened to the public. The problem was getting an appointment. Phone lines were slammed. Residents around town reported placing hundreds of calls to the health department only to hear the sound of a busy signal each time.

Eventually, the city’s health department settled on a tried and true method of dividing up spots: Select-A-Seat, the same platform a concertgoer would use to snag a ticket online. “I can’t tell you for certain that we can handle every phone call,” Lubbock’s mayor, Dan Pope, said during a press conference. “We’re asking those that can to go online and use the Select-A-Seat option.” The problem highlighted a larger issue, as Pope said, “There’s much more demand than there is supply.”

Snagging a coveted appointment remains a challenge. Each week, a new block of appointments fills in less than an hour — feeding frustrations.

“Their website, it sucks,” Mendez says. “Why they’re using Select-A-Seat, I have no idea. … You try to get in there, and it throws you somewhere else.”

Mendez went back to calling — a lot. Finally, he got through and booked his appointment. In two weeks, he’ll start the process all over for his second dose.

Levelland resident Manuel Mendez holds his inoculation record and a sheet of instructions following the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Levelland resident Manuel Mendez holds his inoculation record and a sheet of instructions following the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. (Kaysie Ellingson)

Others in the region aren’t so lucky. Nearly 13% of Lubbock County’s population had already received their first dose as of Wednesday, January 27. That’s more than double the amount of residents who have received their first vaccination in Hockley County, which includes Levelland, according to Texas Health and Human Services.

Covenant Health System, which serves 62 counties in the region and has facilities in Plainview and Levelland, among other locations, announced their Lubbock facilities will receive 26,000 doses. Data from the HHS shows 600 more vaccines also being allocated to other facilities in the city this week.

Bruce White, CEO of Covenant Hospital in Levelland, says at the start of the rollout, his facility was allocated 200 doses of the Moderna vaccine, which was primarily used on frontline workers. They haven’t received much more since then, and he’s unsure when a new shipment will arrive.

“I think the frustration for the rural areas is that we don’t have any idea as to when we’ll be allocated vaccines or how much,” he says, adding that there is no geographic limitation to where eligible people can get the vaccine. In fact, White knows several people from Levelland who, like Manuel Mendez, received their shot in Lubbock.

That pattern will most likely expand beyond neighboring areas, according to Steve Beck, the chief administrative officer of Covenant Health. “I think we’ll see some of those communities, at least the general population, that will be forced to come into Lubbock,” Beck says. “Be it the pharmacies, the health department or any other source that’s going to be these super hubs to provide these mass vaccinations.”

White says, “We have lots of people calling for the vaccine, and the answer right now is to advocate for yourself and get the vaccine where you can get it.”

According to recent data from the American Public Media Research Lab, Texas ranks 30th among all states in immunizing its population, with just 5.2 percent of residents vaccinated as of January 24. (DATA MAP EMBEDDED BELOW.)

“It’s hard to understand the state’s strategy on how they’re rolling it out,” White says. “I know there’s obviously not enough vaccine to go all at once, so it is what it is.”

During a recent news conference on Wednesday, Katherine Wells, the director of public health for the city of Lubbock, said surrounding counties are ready to send people to Lubbock for their shots.

“Individuals who would typically come into Lubbock for their healthcare are coming to the [Lubbock Community Civic Center] for the vaccine, and that’s a regional clinic,” Wells sys. “So, we are going to serve anybody who can come into Lubbock. It’s a resource for all of us.”

Lubbock is more than a resource for vaccines. Rural area hospitals depend on the hub city for extensive treatments and critical care. For those dependent communities, healthcare services have been spread even thinner because of COVID-19.

In November, Lubbock-area hospitals saw a surge of COVID-19 patients that has only recently begun to recede. Both Lubbock’s University Medical Center and Covenant Hospital have been at or near capacity since the end of October. They’ve been unable to accept many patient transfers from rural hospitals.

“Rural hospitals are well equipped to take care of COVID, up to a certain point, but we don’t have ICU-level care,” White explains. “So, that’s when we have to transfer patients to our urban facilities. But unfortunately, our urban facilities have been so slammed, that’s been a difficult process.”

When 60% of Covenant Hospital Levelland’s patients had COVID-19 last month, the hospital sent patients to the nearest open facility they could find.

In some cases, that was as far as Mesa, Arizona — about 711 miles west of Levelland.

An estimated 8.2% of the county’s population has had a confirmed case of COVID, according to state data; compared to bigger cities around Texas, where cases surged, that rate may seem low. Lubbock, for example, has seen 18% of its population infected with the virus throughout the pandemic. But as White mentioned, the lack of medical support became a crisis for the rural areas.

White says there are plans for a mass vaccination event in Levelland, if they ever receive enough doses to hold one. Medical facilities and healthcare providers can register to receive and distribute the vaccine, and the state decides where the vaccine goes and how much is allocated.

White says once manufacturing is more stable, he expects the distribution to go smoother.

Back on the La-Z-Boy chair in his mom’s living room, Manuel Mendez counts himself lucky to have received the first dose before so many others. When he’s fully protected, Mendez looks forward to getting back to his favorite cardio routine, dancing the night away at Lubbock’s Chances R nightclub. Until then, he’ll continue his daily calls to the Lubbock health department to book an appointment for his second and final shot.

— Kaysie Ellingson of Texas Tech Public Media contributed reporting.

This story is part of a collaboration with The Texas Newsroom through FRONTLINE’s Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Jayme Lozano, Texas Tech Public Media

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