The man behind the counter at the Lake Highlands auto parts store said he hasn’t gotten his COVID-19 vaccine, and Marisa Gonzales wanted to know why.
Gonzales, a community outreach manager with Dallas County Health and Human Services, wants everyone to sign up for a vaccine. But she can’t force anyone, so she asks questions and provides facts.
On Friday, at the O’Reilly Auto Parts on Walnut Hill Lane, that meant telling the store employee, who wore a blue surgical mask, about a back-to-school vaccine clinic the county will host from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday at Lake Highlands High School. She wanted to get the word out: free COVID-19 shots for anyone over 12 years old. No appointment needed.
The man had already been sick from COVID-19, he said, and has been too busy with work to get the shot.
“This will take 15 minutes, down the street,” Gonzales said. “The delta variant is here. It’s 80% of our cases. The best line of defense is to get a vaccine.”
In this Lake Highlands zip code, 75238, 43.6% of eligible residents are fully vaccinated — far below the threshold for herd immunity and the 52% who are inoculated countywide, according to county data. At the current vaccination pace, Dallas County hospital cases for COVID-19 are predicted to reach 1,000 by Aug. 16, according to a UT Southwestern Medical Center forecast. Daily new infections are also expected to be around that same figure or higher by then.
Gonzales has been doing this for months. First it was trying to convince people to wear masks or close their non-essential businesses. Now she’s trying to persuade them to get the vaccine.
Many times, people have already received their shot. Other times, she says, they can be more hostile.
But as long as the life-saving vaccinations are voluntary, talking to people one-on-one is the best way to convince those who are still on the fence.
“We have to go to the people,” Gonzales said, “because the people won’t come to us.”
In areas like Lake Highlands where more than half of the population hasn’t gotten the shot, the Dallas County health department is trying to bring the science to their doorsteps with a personal touch.
Wearing black or dark blue polo shirts and comfortable sneakers, staffers like Gonzales, Armando Martinez and Marcus Martin went door-to-door to spread the word.
They started at about 9 a.m. in the shopping center at Audelia Road and Walnut Hill. They carried several hundred flyers — in English and Spanish — with information about Saturday’s clinic.
A Subway allowed them to hang the flyers in the front window. At a convenience store and a dentist’s office, employees had already been vaccinated. The public health workers handed out colorful plastic sleeves to hold vaccine ID cards.
But even though many of the employees had been vaccinated, confusion persists over the latest guidance from public health officials.
“Everybody here is vaccinated,” Tai Tran said at his nail salon in the shopping center.
He wasn’t wearing a mask, so Gonzales mentioned that masking up inside is recommended to slow the virus’ spread.
“If we’re vaccinated,” Tran asked, “it’s OK, right?”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention this week said people should resume mask-wearing, regardless of vaccination status in areas where transmission is high. The move was in response to rising rates of the more-infectious delta variant, but for many it seemed like a confusing flip-flop from earlier guidance.
Gonzales didn’t correct Tran. A statewide order from Gov. Greg Abbott means that Dallas County cannot require anyone to wear a mask. All the workers can do is strongly recommend it.
About an hour later, the three public health workers hiked up a hill on Audelia to the Laverna at Lake Highlands Apartments.
Gonzales, Martinez and Martin split up, knocking on doors throughout the complex. More often than not, no one was home. After a few knocks with no answer, Martinez rang a doorbell, and a man with a Dallas Marshal’s Office face mask came to the door.
Steven Cofield said he works as a detention officer for the city. He has a 3-year-old son, and Martinez handed him a flyer for the back-to-school event.
“I’m sure you’ve got your COVID vaccine,” Martinez said.
Cofield was worried about the facts of the vaccine, he said, so Martinez rattled off a few important ones.
The delta variant is ripping through unvaccinated communities in Dallas County. Of all COVID-19 patients in hospitals nationwide, 97% are unvaccinated.
Cofield looked down at the flyer. He said he had been considering signing up for the shot, especially for his son’s sake.
“I’m going to go ahead and get mine,” he said. “I don’t want to bring something home that could kill him.”
Not everyone was as receptive. The team has heard everything from worries about FDA testing to wild religious speculation that the vaccine is the “mark of the beast.”
One woman at the Lake Highlands apartment complex said she’s never had a flu shot and has never gotten sick, so why get a COVID-19 vaccine?
Gonzales knocked on another door and a woman poked her head out just long enough to see her clipboard.
“Oh, I don’t have time for whatever it is,” the woman said, slamming the door.
Gonzales laughed it off. She knows not everyone will take her up on the offer, but her job is simply to present the information.
Compassion, love and concern, Gonzales said, are critical.
“The harder you push them,” she said, “the harder they push back.”
It was 94 degrees by 11:30 a.m., when the team walked across the street to another apartment complex. All three were sweating and began taking their masks off to breathe easier between buildings.
Gonzales and Martinez walked across a courtyard and up a flight of stairs to another door. Jeremiah Ngouan, 21, answered wearing a pair of basketball shorts. Martinez handed him a flyer and told him about the event. He asked if he had been vaccinated. Ngouan said no.
“Well, delta is on the rise,” Martinez said.
“Yeah, I heard about that, but I haven’t done much research,” Ngouan said.
Gonzales repeated the standard facts she’d been saying all morning: Think about your parents, aunts, uncles or grandparents who may be at risk. He slightly raised his eyebrows.
She told him to stop by the clinic at the high school if he changed his mind.
“We’ll be there from 9 to 12,” she said.
Ngouan said he would consider it.
His main concerns? Hurried federal approval for the shots. Plus, he’d battled COVID in December without getting too ill. He also worried that the vaccine could make people sick, an untrue theory that’s spread online.
But this clinic, free and convenient, just down the street from his apartment, may be enough. He wants to travel soon, he said, and that could sway him to consider the shot.
“I might as well get it,” he said.
Gonzales and Martinez left to talk to a few more of his neighbors before they ran out of flyers and decided to call it a day.
They’d have to wait until Saturday, doses ready and needles prepped at the Lake Highlands clinic, to see if their hard work paid off.
Fair Park in South Dallas: Pop-up vaccination clinic for Pfizer first and second doses, Lot 13, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday
Lake Highlands: Back-to-school event for childhood immunizations and COVID-19 vaccines for anyone over 12, Lake Highlands High School, 9449 Church Road, 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. Saturday