Running in between patients, Dr. Eileen Sprys pauses to catch her breath, tries to gather herself, but cannot mask her frustration: The health care workers in her COVID-besieged West Texas hospital were left out of the first shipment of the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine, and they have no idea when they may get it.
Not a single rural hospital in this state that prides itself on its country roots received any doses of the vaccine this week, despite such medical outposts serving around 20% of the state’s population, or 3 million people.
Even before the pandemic, rural hospitals in Texas and many other states were operating on “skin and bones” staffing and budgets, Sprys said.
“We’re all exposed all the time,” she said. “We don’t have an isolated COVID wing or staff only dedicated to COVID unlike in larger hospitals. To not be included in the first shipment of vaccines is just so upsetting.”
This isn’t the first sign of inequality in the pandemic. Rural and urban poor residents across the U.S. have lamented not receiving treatments and medications as the better off, nor the quantity or quality of testing.
Sprys, her three fellow doctors and the 28 members of the nursing staff at the Medical Arts Hospital in Lamesa have been looking forward to the vaccine for months, hoping it would bring relief to Dawson County.
One of the poorest counties in Texas, nearly a quarter of Dawson’s 13,000 residents live in poverty. To date, it has seen 1,325 coronavirus cases and 42 deaths, according to the state health department’s count.
Rural hospitals around the nation, and particularly in Texas, have faces widespread closures after years of budget cuts. Some 27 rural hospitals have closed in Texas in the past decade – double that of any other state.
If it weren’t for a $10 billion federal stimulus aimed at rural hospitals nationwide in May, another half dozen small Texas facilities would have closed, estimated John Henderson, the president of the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals.