CORPUS CHRISTI — Gilbert Muñoz doesn’t leave his gray, one-story home much. The last year brought not only the pandemic but also a string of health emergencies for him and his wife, Janie. Not even their son comes inside now for fear he might bring the virus with him.
But on Monday, when two paramedics knocked, Janie yelled for them to come in.
Then Gilbert, Janie and a home health aide took turns sitting on a chair in the living room as a paramedic injected them with COVID-19 vaccine.
Muñoz, whose gray beard bulged out from behind his mask, took his vaccination card in both hands.
Receiving the shot “opens the door a bit,” said the 68-year-old, choking up.
The Corpus Christi Fire Department is going door to door to vaccinate homebound residents in a novel initiative that could offer a model for other Texas communities trying to get shots to the most vulnerable.
Right now, most Texans are being inoculated at large hubs that can vaccinate thousands each day. At sites like Fair Park and Texas Motor Speedway, people come from all over in their cars. Some wait hours for a shot. For people too sick or frail to leave their homes during the pandemic, getting to one of those sites can be an impossible task.
With that in mind, the Corpus Christi Fire Department decided to take the shots to them. Since launching the effort Jan. 26, paramedics have inoculated more than 850 residents by working with the local Meals on Wheels program to trace its delivery routes. Now, the department has opened a hotline for vulnerable residents to schedule an at-home shot.
“Morale is high on the Fire Department in terms of their ability to participate in the program that has a definite benefit,” said Fire Chief Robert Rocha.
Rocha said he had received several calls from other departments asking about the model.
There’s currently no statewide effort to inoculate residents in their own homes. The Department of State Health Services is working to see if there’s a way to do it on a broader scale, spokesman Chris Van Deusen said.
The state is pressing large hubs to prioritize people over age 75. Strategies could include setting aside a specific number of doses for seniors, serving them during special hours, helping them move more quickly through the line with a fast-track lane or taking vaccine directly to them, as Corpus Christi is doing, the department’s associate commissioner, Imelda Garcia, told reporters Thursday.
Communities including Dallas are developing plans to take the vaccine to people who cannot leave their homes. Details are still being worked out, officials said.
“Everything is moving really quickly on a whole lot of different fronts, but that’s one of the things we’re working on,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.
‘Racing the clock’
Timing is one of the biggest challenges in any door-to-door vaccination effort.
The war room at the Corpus Christi Fire Department — a wood-paneled conference room off the chief’s office — was bustling Monday morning. At the end of a long table, paramedic Amber Marie Lopez filled syringes from tiny vials of Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. She handed the trays of preloaded needles to paramedics who filed in and out wearing the department’s dark blue uniforms.
Working in teams of two, paramedics are deployed with about 10 doses. They have six hours to use them.
“We’re racing the clock,” said fire Capt. Walter Garcia, who is helping to manage the operation. “We have to make sure it’s as efficient as it can be.”
No minute is wasted. Just after 9 a.m. Monday, firefighter/paramedics Steve Bowers and Kassandra Goce climbed into a red SUV and secured their vaccine doses in the center console. As Bowers maneuvered down neighborhood streets, Goce called everyone on their vaccination list to make sure they were home.
At each stop, Bowers sank the needle into people’s arms. Then, during the 15-minute observation period afterward, Goce took down their information on an iPad.
Once they ran out of shots, a runner from the department delivered them more.
The effort requires a lot of resources. Between five and seven vaccination teams are out each day. Most of the work is logged as overtime, Assistant Fire Chief Kenneth Erben said.
Bowers, a 32-year veteran of the department, said this past year has been the hardest he’s worked. One day last week, Bowers said, he vaccinated people from 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
“Many of them have been shacked up in their house for 10 to 11 months. They haven’t been able to be comfortable going out to the store. They haven’t been able to see their kids, and they’ve lived in fear,” he said. “For us to show up with a vaccine, it gives them a sense of relief.”
Not everyone is eager for a shot. When Elida Garza first learned she could receive the vaccine at her home, the 87-year-old hesitated.
One in 5 Texans say they do not want a coronavirus vaccine, according to a survey released this week by the University of Houston. Many, like Garza, cite concerns about potential side effects.
Elida Garza, 87, greeted firefighter/paramedics Steve Bowers and Kassandra Goce as they arrived at her Corpus Christi home on Monday to administer her first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)
With encouragement from her friends and family, Garza decided to take the shot. On Monday morning, her son pulled a wooden chair onto the front stoop. Garza sat down and pulled up the sleeve of her bright pink sweater, and Bowers put the needle in her arm.
“That it?” she said, raising her eyebrows. “I didn’t even feel it.”
Others need no convincing. Sam Johnson was pulling into his driveway after a doctor’s appointment when paramedics arrived. The retired barber stayed sitting in the front seat of his red pickup truck while Bowers pricked his arm.
“I’ve got some bragging rights now,” the 86-year-old said.
Older Texans confined to their homes may not have a lot of public exposure themselves, but they are often cared for by a nurse, home health aide or family member who could bring in the virus.
“The people who care for them are going in and out,” said Dr. Sarah Ross, an assistant professor of geriatrics at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. “Even if they are just there an hour every day or four hours once a week, what are they doing the rest of the time?”
Coming down with COVID-19 in old age can be a death sentence. People over 65 make up more than 70% of COVID-19 fatalities in Texas, according to state data.
While long-term care facilities have partnered with pharmacies to vaccinate residents, older Texans who live alone have not had access to that service.
Erma Adams might not have received a shot had paramedics not paid her a visit Monday.
Firefighter/paramedic Kassandra Goce surveyed and monitored Erma Adams, 80, after Adams received her first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine Monday at her home in Corpus Christi.(Lynda M. González / Staff Photographer)
The 80-year-old’s heart, lung and other health ailments are so serious that her doctor told her not to go out at all after the pandemic began. Her husband, James Adams, runs errands and does the grocery shopping. Because he goes out in public, and Erma’s risk of severe COVID-19 is so high, her doctor suggested that the couple sleep in different bedrooms.
Even if they decided to try their luck at a mass vaccination clinic, Erma’s portable oxygen tank lasts only an hour, so waiting in a long line is out of the question.
“I’m depressed from being in this house so much,” said Erma, who sat on her living room couch wearing a vibrant floor-length dress and matching neon green face mask. Before the pandemic, she often went shopping with friends and visited with her daughter, who lives 150 miles away.
“I’m just so glad y’all came to the house,” she told the paramedics.