AUSTIN — One Dallas man rented a car and drove 13 hours roundtrip to Amarillo to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Another Dallas couple signed up at multiple providers across Texas before securing an appointment in a city of 6,000 near Waco. One Dallas woman’s son scheduled a shot for her in San Antonio while she was on a waitlist at a vaccination site closer to home.
Their stories are far from unique. In a state that imposes no restrictions on where people can get a coronavirus shot, desperate Texans are traveling hours to find one.
“It’s just a free for all,” said Dallas resident Paul Martinez, 70, who drove two hours with his wife to Falls County for a shot.
The state’s choice to let Texans be vaccinated anywhere was meant to ensure access for everyone, including those who live in communities with few or no providers.
But in the mad dash to secure a shot, people have put their names on any registration list they could find and jumped at the first appointment, even if it was hours away.
That process does not work for all Texans, though — especially people without a vehicle, a flexible schedule or easy access to the internet. Those residents are already at a disadvantage in a vaccine rollout that’s largely depended on online registration and sites that require a car.
A majority of Dallas County residents are getting their shot locally. But one in five in Dallas County who have received the shot — more than 46,000 people — left the county for a vaccine, according to the state. Most made their appointments in neighboring counties. But more than 11,000 others were inoculated in Bell, Harris, Smith and at least 134 other counties in some of the farthest corners of the state.
As they left, thousands of others from across North Texas and elsewhere came to Dallas County looking for a dose of vaccine, according to the data.
Officials from several urban and rural counties said they see no problem with the lack of residency restrictions. The more shots they give, the better.
“We’re happy to have anybody come down,” said John Graves, CEO of Dimmit Regional Hospital, where about half the people they vaccinate are from outside the county southwest of San Antonio.
The Department of State Health Services said in a statement the vast majority of people — 72% statewide — have been vaccinated in the county they live in. More than 2.7 million Texans have received at least one dose of vaccine to date.
“There have been a lot of anecdotes about people traveling to get vaccinated, but the data shows that most people are not traveling far to get vaccinated,” department spokeswoman Lara Anton said.
The Expert Vaccine Allocation Panel, a group of 17 public health experts, lawmakers and state officials that guides decision making, is aware of the concerns and “considering whether any modifications need to be made,” Anton said.
The lack of residency restrictions was not intended for people to drive across the state for a shot, said David Lakey, a member of the panel and Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs and Chief Medical Officer at The University of Texas System. The idea was that people might travel within their area for a shot or be vaccinated in the place where they work or go to school, he said.
“It’s easier for certain people to take a whole day off and drive across the state and get a vaccine than others, so it does raise that equity issue,” Lakey said.
The lengths people are willing to go for a shot underscores the desperation for a vaccine to protect against the virus that’s claimed more than 39,000 lives in Texas. The travelers don’t make just one trip. Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine require a second dose that is spaced about one month after the first.
Several Dallas County residents said they began looking for a shot elsewhere after registering at local sites and finding themselves in line behind 100,000 others or more.
Anthony Page’s online research led him to Amarillo. The city’s public health department offers a walk-up clinic, no appointment needed. On the morning of Jan. 26 he drove seven hours to the Panhandle, received the shot, and returned home to Dallas by midnight.
“It seems like your likelihood to get the vaccine from one place to another is vastly different for reasons that are not clear,” said Page, 57, who said he falls into the state’s 1B vaccination priority group due to an underlying health condition.
More than 420 Dallas County residents have been inoculated in Potter County, where Amarillo is located, according to state data. The city’s vaccination site has even attracted people from other states, including New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas, said Casie Stoughton, Amarillo’s Director of Public Health.
“We are certainly welcoming,” she said. “But certainly the majority of the vaccine has been given [to people] here at home.”
That’s not true everywhere. The amount of shots given to locals varies widely county by county.
As of last week, more than 60% of shots given in Dallas County had gone to local residents, according to the state. About 18% were given to people who live in Collin, Denton and Tarrant Counties.
It’s unclear how many of those out-of-county residents work in Dallas County and may have received a shot through their workplace — like a hospital, nursing home or clinic — or whether they traveled to a vaccination hub in Dallas, like the one at Fair Park. The state’s data does not include that information.
A mass vaccination clinic hosted by Denton County at Texas Motor Speedway drew mostly local residents last week, but a few came from places as far as Pennsylvania and Louisiana, said county spokeswoman Jennifer Rainey.
Statewide, only about 8,290 people from outside of Texas have received a shot here, a tiny percentage of the total number of people who have been vaccinated, Anton said.
In Washington County, a more rural county northwest of Houston, only about 25% of their hub’s shots have been used to inoculate residents, estimated County Judge John Durrenberger. After locals, Harris County residents have received the second highest number of doses. But people are coming from as far away as Amarillo, El Paso and Laredo, he said.
“People are anxious to get the vaccine and they will go to great lengths to get it,” Durrenberger said. “Wherever they can get registered, they are going to go get the shot.”
That has proven a challenge for some places.
Without a central, statewide registration system, each vaccination site has its own sign-up process. Many are online. While the state still has a limited supply of shots, some people are putting their names on multiple lists and taking the first appointment they get.
For Bell County, it has led to cancellations and no-shows that are time consuming to rebook, said County Judge David Blackburn.
“We’ve been able to back fill that, but we have been making hundreds of calls a day off the waitlist,” he said. The county is trying to address the issue by releasing appointments on a weekly basis.
“The bottom line is that there’s just not enough supply,” Blackburn said.
Alan Samuels, who lives in Dallas, knows that first hand. The 59-year-old with underlying health conditions said he tried to sign up at five local vaccination sites and found himself “standing in a mile long line.”
So when Samuels learned his brother-in-law, who lives in Austin, was able to schedule a next-day appointment in the capital city, Samuels decided to try too.
At first, everything was booked up. But one night last week, just before Samuels went to bed, he pulled out his phone to check the website. There were open appointments.
So last Saturday, Samuels made the three-hour drive to Austin to receive his first dose.
“If you want the vaccine, try every resource you can,” he said. “If you’re willing to go further, it’s available.”
— to www.dallasnews.com