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El Paso Times: US Rep. Veronica Escobar works to bring FEMA COVID-19 vaccination site to El Paso

By Aaron Martinez
March 11, 2021

Efforts led by U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar to bring a federal vaccination site to El Paso could result in the area getting thousands of COVID-19 vaccine doses per day.

President Joe Biden announced soon after he was sworn in that he would use the Federal Emergency Management Agency to bring vaccination sites to areas across the country. 

"Early on we learned that the administration was going to be using FEMA to help get vaccines into people's arms," Escobar said. "We know that the prior administration did not use a whole of government approach to crushing the pandemic. So, we were very excited when we learned that President Biden would indeed be utilizing FEMA, finally, for vaccine distribution."

After Biden’s announcement, Escobar began conversations with his administration to bring a FEMA vaccination site to El Paso.

"I immediately put in a call to the White House, to FEMA, to (White House Chief Medical Adviser) Dr. (Anthony) Fauci, to Marcella Nuñez-Smith, who is the individual at the White House tasked with addressing equity," Escobar said. "I alerted all of them to a number of things. Number one, the fact that we are a binational community and we have yet as a federal government to implement a binational COVID plan. We should be a priority. Also, our vulnerability with the fact that we have a high rate of constituents without health insurance — about a quarter of our population overall doesn't have health insurance."

Escobar stressed that the city and El Paso County have shown they can handle mass vaccinations.

"Also, on the positive side, I told them that we have a system in place that has been set up by the city and the county to ensure that the vaccines were provided to the community efficiently," Escobar said.

"But I did flag for them that while we don't have all of the data, my concern was that vaccines may not be making it to some of our more outlying areas, areas without access to broadband (internet), some of the more vulnerable community members and some of the poor ZIP codes in town. So, from my perspective, we really need FEMA to increase its approach in El Paso."

FEMA has launched 16 pilot program vaccine sites throughout the country that distribute about 6,000 doses of vaccines a day, according to FEMA officials.

The agency also is operating more than 50 mobile vaccination centers throughout the country.
In Texas, FEMA vaccination centers opened in Houston, Dallas and Arlington in February.
FEMA officials have yet to announce whether El Paso will receive a federal vaccination site.
City leaders said a FEMA vaccination site would greatly help the city and county’s efforts to provide more vaccines to El Pasoans.

"Rep. Escobar has been leading this effort to get us a FEMA site here locally," El Paso Fire Chief Mario D'Agostino said. "We do have weekly communication with her and her team and the entire state delegation, and it's discussed as a possibility. We haven't got a confirmation on where we are or if we are going to receive one, but we are anxious for that and we support it. We've been supporting her in her efforts to push for El Paso to receive one."

Escobar has been successful in getting the federal government to send more vaccine doses to El Paso.
Escobar said some of her conversations with federal leaders were intended to help get vaccine doses for federally qualified health clinics in El Paso.

"The federally qualified health clinics are those who are most deeply connected with some of the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged community members," Escobar said. "That's definitely true with our FQHC."

The El Paso Democrat said, "We're excited to announce that Centro San Vicente will be the recipient of some of those vaccines coming straight from the federal government."

Centro San Vicente, which runs clinics focused on helping underserved populations, received a 1,000 more doses of the COVID-19 vaccine last week as part of a federal program.

The extra doses of the vaccine came from the Federally Qualified Community Health Centers program. The program gives vaccines to federally qualified health clinics that help the underserved and vulnerable communities.

The program is managed by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The additional vaccines will be a big benefit to the community, but Escobar said FEMA needs to play a large role in helping El Paso.

"That's not enough from my perspective. I want to ensure that we get as much support from the federal government as possible," Escobar said. "I'm especially concerned about the colonias, the outlying areas, families without broadband internet who cannot sign up online, and families who don't have access to transportation.

"I want FEMA's help reaching that population."

The need to get vaccines in El Paso is an even more pressing concern, Escobar said, due to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday lifting the state's mandatory mask order and allowing businesses to open at full capacity.

"What we saw last time governor Abbott prematurely opened the state was misery, more people got sick, more people died, hospitals filled up and it was mostly people of color who suffered because Latinos and African Americans are as a percentage more likely to get sick and die because they are essential workers, frontline workers, and because of underlying health conditions," Escobar said.

She continued, "So, last year when governor Abbott reopened the state, of course, we saw the misery that I described. I am afraid that it will happen again with this premature opening. The challenge that we face now is the different strains (of COVID-19). We are not going to get past this until we vaccinate far more members of the community and far more members of the state. We've got to accelerate our efforts, especially in the light of reckless and dangerous decision made recently by governor Abbott."

El Paso County has 253,797 people who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to city data. About 93,957 people have been fully vaccinated.

As of Thursday, there have been 2,222 COVID-19 related deaths in El Paso County since the start of the pandemic in March 2020.

El Paso County currently has 3,920 active cases of COVID-19. In total, there have been 126,210 COVID-19 cases reported in El Paso.

There have been 2,333,796 confirmed cases in Texas with 45,106 deaths.

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