Demand For Vaccines Drops In Odessa And Now Officials Are Left To Figure Out How to Get More Shots In Arms

Texas health officials are working to get as many COVID-19 vaccines to willing residents as statewide demand slows and some vaccination rates plateau. In the Permian Basin, a similar story is playing out in Odessa, where one hospital is trying to bring vaccines to locals where it’s most convenient. 

Medical Center Hospital nurses chat while they wait for people to show up to the pop-up clinic at Crossroads Church in Odessa to get vaccinated for COVID-19. (Mitch Borden/Marfa Public Radio)

On a recent gray morning, nurses are waiting at Crossroads Church in Odessa for anyone who wants a COVID-19 vaccine to show up to a pop-up clinic, but so far it’s quiet. Small talk echoes through the chapel while medical staff meander around, their vaccination stations largely empty.

The event, held by Medical Center Hospital, is a stark contrast to earlier vaccination efforts in Odessa.

Just a few months ago, Medical Center was running one of the largest mass vaccination sites in the region. Held at a local football stadium, staff were averaging 1,500 to 2,000 vaccines a day. But the drive-thru vaccination hub closed its gates in March and now the hospital is only vaccinating around 100 to 200 individuals a day at its local clinics. 

Now, local and state leaders believe vaccine providers need to get creative with their distribution efforts and bring vaccines directly to people. That’s why local health officials are shifting their strategy to making vaccines more convenient for locals and holding smaller events, at schools, homeless shelters and churches like Crossroads.

Melvin Chan was one of a handful of people who showed up to the church clinic. He was there to get his first dose of the vaccine with his wife.

Chan said, the coronavirus, and everything that’s come along with it, has been, “apocalyptic.”

These smaller events are reaching people like Chan who didn’t realize he was eligible for a vaccine until he got an email about the event at Crossroads. Once he found out he could get one, Chan said he was ready to get his shot and put the coronavirus pandemic behind him.  

“It’s like, ‘Wow, alright let’s get over it,’” he described. “, Let’s move on from this.”

But, based on the turnout at Crossroads, not a lot of people share Chan’s feelings. Looking around he admits he thought more people would have turned out to get their free vaccines.

“If we’re all trying to move on from this, you know just get past, it’s definitely not what I expected.”

Melvin and Tammy Chan sit after receiving their first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. (Mitch Borden/Marfa Public Radio)

In the last few months, across Odessa — and the rest of Texas — demand for vaccines has plummeted. Officials at Medical Center, the city’s primary hospital, have even temporarily halted new shipments of the vaccine since it’s built up a stockpile of thousands of doses. 

While supplies were limited at first, vaccines are now widely available in Odessa, even at local pharmacies. And vaccine availability has only grown with the recent drop in demand.

Shay Meyer remembers the first time a box of vaccines arrived at Sunflower RX, her small Pharmacy in Odessa. 

“It was emotional. I got tears in my eyes when the Fed Ex person brought the box in. This is the end of this,”she recalled thinking. “We are coming to the end of this.”

Until recently her staff were vaccinating hundreds of people a week. But that ended in mid-April, when distribution of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was put on hold while the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated a rare side effect from the shot.  

Meyer said, “It was immediate. It was immediate we stopped getting calls for any kinds of vaccines. People are just not coming in.” 

It wasn’t just the J & J vaccine people were shying away from, demand for any vaccine practically evaporated, according to Meyer. In late April, Meyer had 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine just sitting in her pharmacy. It’s a frustrating sign for her. The supply is there. It’s just the majority of Odessans are not getting vaccinated — and state data is starting to bear this out.

In the Odessa area, only about 37% of individuals 16 and older have gotten their first shot. That means over 76,000 people haven’t. Looking at the state as whole — nearly 50% of Texans have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.

The fact officials in West Texas are seeing falling vaccination rates doesn’t really surprise  Timothy Callaghan is a professor at Texas A&M and researches vaccine hesitancy. 

According to him, “The thing we do need to recognize though is the more people who get vaccinated the harder the task becomes.” He continued, “What we’ve been doing is the easy part. We’ve been trying to get the vaccine in the arms of people who are willing and ready to get vaccinated.”

That means, according to Callaghan, a lot of the people left are hesitant because they think either the vaccines aren’t safe or refuse to get one because they believe in a false coronavirus conspiracy theory.

That’s leaving health officials to figure out what is the right message and who are the right messengers to convince people. Callaghan said, if they can’t figure this out, the virus will continue to spread and more variants could develop.

“The real concern is those variants will be immune to the protection provided by the vaccine and well be back at square one,” explained Callaghn

Medical Center Hospital’s pop-up vaccination event was held at Crossroads Church in Odessa. (Mitch Borden/Marfa Public Radio)

And now experts are beginning to believe the drop in vaccination rates across the country could make it impossible for the United States to reach “herd immunity” to the coronavirus. 

Which is why health officials are working hard to get as many people vaccinated as soon as possible, people like Angie Ortiz. She was one of just 25 locals to get vaccinated at Medical Center’s pop-up clinic at Crossroads church. 

Her explanation for the low turnout — people in Odessa are stubborn.

“The ones who were gonna get it, got it. she said. 

That does not really bother Ortiz too much though. She’s more concerned with doing what she can to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

“You just kind of shake your head and say ‘OK, I’m gonna do what I need to do to protect myself, protect my family and I’m just gonna go with that.” Oritz went on, “I can’t change everybody’s mind and I can’t protect everybody so I just gotta do my part.”

Health officials in Odessa as well as all over the nation are hoping there are more people like Ortiz out there that will get their vaccine — if they can find and convince them. 

About Mitch Borden

Mitch Borden is Marfa Public Radio's Permian Basin Reporter. If you have any questions about West Texas' energy industry or the Permian Basin email him at mitch@marfapublicradio.org.
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