El Paso Finds a Recipe for Vaccination Success
By Joey Berlin

While city and county health authorities all over Texas keep searching for a recipe to get more local residents vaccinated for COVID-19, El Paso – the city and the county – have found what Ogechika Alozie, MD, calls a “secret sauce.” 

About a year after being one of the state’s most troublesome hot spots for the virus, El Paso County has climbed out of the direst of those straits, thanks in part to vaccination rates that stand out among Texas’ 254 counties.

According to recent data posted to state COVID-19 dashboards, 76.5% of El Paso County’s 12-and-over population was fully vaccinated. That was significantly higher than the state as a whole (62.7% fully vaccinated), and higher than other large counties in the state, including Harris (66.1%), Dallas (61.9%), Tarrant (59.5%), and Travis (71.7%). Just under 90% of El Paso County’s vaccine-eligible population had received at least one dose.

Physicians in the area tell Texas Medicine Today that particular characteristics about El Paso – and what the area encountered during its worst moments of the pandemic – have driven its vaccination success.

Dr. Alozie, one of the state’s most prominent infectious disease specialists, cites three major factors forming that secret sauce. First, the crushing impact of COVID-19 on El Paso in the fall of 2020 propelled the community into action once vaccines became widely available. In a close-knit community and culture, people were terrified, he says, and wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again.

Pediatrician Alison Days, MD, served as president of the El Paso County Medical Society during COVID-19’s worst days last year. “Every other person here in El Paso probably knows somebody who was extremely ill or died from COVID, and maybe more than one,” she said. “I have some patients, who literally half their family passed away from it. Multiple adults within the family passed away. … I do think that lends itself to people wanting to get vaccinated.”

Second, Dr. Alozie says, the messaging was consistent. Physicians in the area worked hard in getting residents to understand how vaccines could play a role in stopping the spread. He says the misinformation that has plagued other communities was at a minimum in El Paso.

Added Dr. Days: “Physicians as a whole here were pretty much united in acceptance of the vaccine. We didn’t have too many docs who were naysayers to the vaccine initially, or even nurses. There were some; we’re not at 100%. For the most part, we were united initially in getting ourselves vaccinated, and then getting the word out to our patients to get vaccinated.”

Lastly, Dr. Alozie says, El Paso was already historically one of Texas’ most reliable cities for vaccine uptake when it comes to the likes of pediatric immunizations, flu shots, and human papillomavirus vaccines.

“When you take all of those things put together, it wasn’t really ever a situation where people were saying, ‘Well, I don’t want to get vaccinated.’ [It was], ‘When can I get vaccinated? How can I get vaccinated? Where are the avenues?’” he said. “This county health department, UMC [University Medical Center of El Paso], the Hospitals of Providence, all of the various [federally qualified health centers], Immunize El Paso – everybody stepped up.

“Damn, there were some times that various places were doing vaccines until 10 pm. They were doing it on the weekends. Those are all the real keys.”

Dr. Alozie says it’s heartening that the community rallied to climb out of the pandemic’s darkest days. Help came from everywhere, including medical students from neighboring New Mexico: Some students from Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine in Las Cruces drove across the border to help El Paso County Medical Society with an extended effort to sort and distribute personal protective equipment to physicians and health organizations across the county.

“Historically, it’s one of those things – you think of El Paso as what’s called an HPSA: a health professional shortage area,” Dr. Alozie said. “It’s always this thing where we don’t have enough doctors, we don’t have enough nurses. We still don’t. But it’s just kind of remarkable to me how everything came together. We probably paid a price last year because we don’t have enough doctors and nurses and [respiratory therapists]. But for me, one of the silver linings in all of that was that the whole health care community came together. And that was remarkable.

“If you had said that two years ago, I probably would’ve said, ‘Yeeeaah, I don’t know about that. It’s kind of parochial. Everyone wants to protect their turf.’ But when it mattered, all the health care organizations and providers came together.”

Last Updated On

October 11, 2021

Originally Published On

October 11, 2021

Joey Berlin

Associate Editor

(512) 370-1393

Joey Berlin is associate editor of Texas Medicine. His previous work includes stints as a reporter and editor for various newspapers and publishing companies, and he’s covered everything from hard news to sports to workers’ compensation. Joey grew up in the Kansas City area and attended the University of Kansas. He lives in Austin.

More stories by Joey Berlin