COVID-19 ravaged the state’s border counties. Now they’re leading Texas in vaccinations

Blanca Alvarado administers the COVID-19 vaccine to a patient in Laredo. Feb. 1, 2021.
Blanca Alvarado administers the COVID-19 vaccine to a patient in Laredo. Feb. 1, 2021.

When Rio Grande Valley retiree Robert Chapa finally got his COVID-19 vaccine in March after months of trying to secure an appointment, it was a nearby school district that came through for him.

After a year of living in a national hot spot for the virus, where death rates at one point were among the highest in the nation, Chapa, 59, was anxious to get the shot.

“I was at high risk, with one kidney,” said Chapa, who lost the organ in a car accident decades ago. “I stood in line for three hours, I think. But if you gotta get it, you gotta get it.”

A friend who worked at the Mission Independent School District helped him secure an appointment at Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg as part of a drive to vaccinate district employees and their families, when demand was still high and vaccine supplies were low.

Counties on the Texas-Mexico border that were among the hardest-hit by COVID-19 are now seeing some of the highest vaccination rates in the state. From El Paso to Brownsville, every county along the border is outpacing the state average for the percentage of residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Of the 39 Texas counties currently above the state average, more than a third of them are border counties, according to state numbers.

Statewide, 35% of the total population has been fully vaccinated, including 42% of eligible Texans 12 and older. In the Rio Grande Valley, three of the four counties have already surpassed 40% of their total population fully vaccinated, including Hidalgo County with 43%, Cameron at 45% and Starr County with nearly 50%. In Webb County, which includes Laredo, 47% of residents are fully vaccinated, and El Paso County has fully vaccinated about 45% of its population.

The biggest motivator for residents to show up in such large numbers for the shot, locals say, is the fact that the region suffered so much death during COVID-19 surges. In El Paso County, more than 2,700 residents were reported to have died from the virus, and COVID-19 deaths were so frequent in the fall that inmates were used as labor to help deal with the bodies. Hidalgo County reported more than 2,800 deaths — at one point last summer, one in 10 COVID-19 deaths in Texas had happened in the county of nearly 900,000 people.

“Everybody knew someone that had died from COVID here in this region,” said Dr. Michael Dobbs, vice dean of clinical affairs at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley School of Medicine. “I think there were very few people who were COVID skeptics or deniers.”