Hundreds of doses headed to least-vaccinated county in Central Texas but will they get used?

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SAN SABA, Texas (KXAN) — Rita Jackson likes the slower pace of living in San Saba.

“My neighbors? We help each other all the time. If I can’t do it, they help me and vice versa,” she explained.

The county has a population of roughly 6,000 — but around half that live in the City of San Saba itself. Rita’s husband, Ricky, suffered a serious injury working in Midland-Odessa, so the couple relocated to the small Central Texas town eight years ago.

“He’s on oxygen 24/7,” Jackson explained, talking about Ricky’s high-risk for catching coronavirus. “That’s why I said to him and myself, ‘we need to [get the vaccine] in case, because I don’t want to give it to you. I don’t believe you’d survive.'”

Just like the pace of life in San Saba, the coronavirus spread at a slower rate, too. The county’s first case wasn’t reported until May. State data shows 23 people died, but county management officials told KXAN they believe that number is too high.

“We haven’t really been decimated by COVID,” County Judge Byron Theodosis said. “We have a nursing home here — my mother-in-law is one of the residents — so, of course, we were terrified about what would happen if it went through there. That was our main concern.”

When the vaccine started arriving in other parts of Texas, the judge and other county officials were thrilled. However, for weeks San Saba has ranked as the least-vaccinated county in the State of Texas, per capita.

“We maybe didn’t holler loud enough, because we knew it was coming. It was always still coming. Then we realized, maybe it’s not coming,” said Marsha Hardy, who operates the county’s Emergency Management Division.

That’s when Theodosis and Hardy said their “bad luck” began.

Supply problem, demand problem or just ‘bad luck’?

“We want to get farther down the road, but we are running into bad luck or bureaucracy,” Hardy explained.

First, San Saba officials said they had planned to move the location of their clinic long before the coronavirus ever threatened their community. Unfortunately, that meant their freezers hadn’t been up and running long enough to be eligible to receive the vaccine right away.

“Red tape is always frustrating, when you know the freezers are working and they are not apt to go bad. But regulations are regulations, so we suffered through it. We never were panicky about not getting it,” the judge said.

Then Everett’s Pharmacy, the sold pharmacy in town, saw a months-long delay in getting doses from the federal program in which they had enrolled.

“We applied a long time ago. I want to say it was like September or October we started the process,” said pharmacy manager Joseph DeBons.

Everett’s finally got a shipment of 100 doses in mid-March, and DeBons said the doses went fast.

The pharmacy manager fills prescriptions at San Saba’s sole pharmacy, Everett’s (KXAN Photo/Ben Friberg)

“Set up a little station out front. We had seven ‘bays’ out front, and you sat in your car,” he said. “A lot of patients were very happy we got the Johnson and Johnson single dose.”

Once the doses started arriving, Hardy said they came in inconsistent quantities — making it tough to plan clinics. The logistical problems were amplified when trying to book locations for these clinics — one week a pre-planned school sports event prohibited them from setting up at the local Civic Center, the next week they worried how long lines of cars for the clinic would impede traffic on the main thoroughfare.

With 17.2% of residents receiving at least one vaccine and 6.6% of its residents fully vaccinated, San Saba remains behind all 15 other Central Texas counties in the KXAN viewing area.

Across the state, they moved up to the second-to-last spot for fully vaccinated individuals on Friday, after spending weeks at the bottom of the list. At the top sits Presidio County — home to the state’s art oasis, Marfa, but very similar to San Saba in size. Presidio has fully vaccinated more than 40% of its residents, but state data reveals it has received 4,200 doses of the vaccine.

San Saba has been allocated 1,200, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

“You almost want to go, ‘Duh, we know that.’ We’ve been trying. We’ve been doing everything we can think to do,” Hardy said, noting she spends a lot of time each week calling residents personally to line up appointments.

She went on, “We have reached out. We have put out the information. We have talked to every person and dog out there — and we are still doing that.”

When Rita Jackson got the call in mid-March, she hesitated but only for a moment.

“Several people said, ‘It’ll make you sick!'” she said. “They said, ‘No, no, no, don’t get it.’ I said, ‘Well, I need to, because I don’t want my husband to catch it.'”

She signed them both up, and thankfully, neither Jackson experienced serious side effects — aside from a sigh of relief. So, Rita has started encouraging her neighbors.

County officials worry, however, a strong sense of vaccine hesitancy could hinder their efforts.

“For every ten calls I make there are going to two that are, ‘No, thank you. Appreciate it. Take me off your list. Don’t call me again,'” Hardy said. “For the biggest part — now that we’ve done it this long — if they wanted it, they would have called. So, now you are taking the chance you are going to call someone and really tick them off. They don’t want to talk about it.”

With smaller clinics, Hardy said they can manage, but 500 doses of the vaccine are headed to San Saba next week.

Biggest shipment yet

 A spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services explained their public health region was partnering with San Saba County to host a vaccine clinic on Tuesday with the 500 doses.

“It’s something all our regions do from week to week with the rural counties we serve across the state,” the spokesperson said.

Hardy wants to continue to prioritize their own residents and other rural communities like theirs in the Hill Country. Still, she said if any from other counties has struggled to get vaccinated, they could call her at 325-372-8570.

“If we can do 500 — even if it’s not all us and even if we are helping other counties in the area — hey, get a vaccine,” Hardy said.

Judge Theodosis told KXAN he was extremely worried about “misinformation” spreading, and he wants every San Saba resident to speak with their doctor or a reputable medical expert about their decision on the shot.

“I’m afraid we are going to go from not having enough vaccine, to not having enough people to give the vaccine to, if we are not careful,” he said. “If we allow the fearmongers or we allow this to become a political football, the numbers might not get anywhere close to 70 percent.”

The trouble with second doses

At his first clinic, Debons said there were “tensions and questions about side effects” but patients were relieved when they learned which brand they’d be getting — Johnson & Johnson.

“You can tell patients are nervous about it,” he said. “Valid concerns by the patients, but we didn’t have any problems. All 100 went smoothly.”

Hardy said she’s heard the same sentiment — people prefer the Johnson & Johnson one-shot option, and from a logistics perspective, she agrees.

She knows many of their residents qualifying in Phase 1B drove to places like Lubbock or even Austin to try and get the shot back when their allocation was coming more slowly. Now, some of those folks are trying to get their second dose at home in San Saba.

“Nearly all the clinics will tell you, go back to where you had your first shot because they are not set up to do that,” Hardy said.

She noted they have been trying to coordinate second doses with the state for as many locals as they can.

Still, the trouble with second doses and the rocky rollout reveals itself in the numbers. There are a few counties below San Saba when it exclusively to first doses — it’s the “fully vaccinated” statistic where they fall short.

Hardy, however, has hope.

“If we can fill the 500, it will definitely be a turning point.”

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