BROWNSVILLE & HARLINGEN –As health and government officials throughout the Rio GrandeValleyand beyond are cautiously optimistic that the COVID-19 pandemic has entered its final stages, local physicians are continuing to urge residents who have not yet been vaccinated to strongly consider doing so.

Health officials have long maintained that the best way to bring the pandemic to a close is for the United States to reach herd immunity against COVID-19. Herd immunity occurs when most of the population becomes immune to the disease, making person-to-person transmission unlikely. While calculating an exact figure is difficult, most experts have suggested it will take approximately 70 percent of the population to become fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to reach that point.

With more than 78 percent of seniors in Cameron County now fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the 65-and-older population throughout Cameron County has heard the plea of local health officials to choose vaccination, according to data provided by the Texas State Department of State Health Services.

Dr. Beverly Zavaleta, physician adviser atValleyBaptistMedical Center-Brownsville, said it is encouraging that seniors throughout the region have chosen to trust the science behind vaccines as a means to protect themselves against COVID-19 and do their part to bring the pandemic to a close and urged others to do the same.

“I’m encouraged that so many people have already been vaccinated,” she said. “However, every person I’ve admitted to the hospital recently with COVID pneumonia was not vaccinated. Many said that the reason they delayed their vaccine was that they wanted to ask their doctor about it. If you feel this way, don’t delay — ask your doctor and get your questions answered. The COVID vaccine is recommended for almost everyone.”

While it is encouraging that most seniors throughout the county have chosen to receive one of the available COVID-19 vaccines, more individuals under 65 years old must overcome vaccine hesitancy in order for the region to reach herd immunity, especially now that the FDA has approved the use of the Pfizer version of the vaccine in children as young as 12 years old.

According to data provided by the state department of health services, nearly 58 percent of the eligible population under 65 years old in Cameron County is fully vaccinated against COVID-19, well above the state average of 44 percent, but still considerably lower than the 70 percent needed for herd immunity.

That means many local residents between the ages of 12 and 65 years old are still at an increased risk of both contracting and spreading COVID-19, in addition to facing higher odds of experiencing severe complications of COVID-19 infection that may require hospitalization, said Dr. Christopher Romero, an internal medicine specialist atValleyBaptistMedical Center-Harlingen.

“We have made tremendous progress locally with vaccination efforts, and we have seen firsthand the benefits with fewer cases, fewer hospitalizations, and fewer deaths,” he said. “Vaccination has definitely saved lives and prevented many of our friends and neighbors from suffering from a devastating disease we now have tools to prevent.”

When the Pfizer and Moderna versions of the COVID-19 vaccine became publically available in late 2020, some individuals expressed the desire to wait until more data on the safety of the vaccines became available before choosing vaccination themselves. With more than 135 million Americans now fully vaccinated nationwide according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and reported complications from vaccination being few and far between, it should be clear that the available vaccines are safe and represent the best way to bring about an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, Romero said.

“I am continually reassured by the research coming out on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines available in the United States,” he said. “Despite all the progress, made we need to make that final push here to continue to protect our community. If we look to Argentina, their ICUs are again overflowing and 95 percent of those new patients were unvaccinated when they got sick.”

Local residents who chose vaccination early in the process also faced the daunting hurdle of demand far outstripping the available supply of the vaccine, often having to navigate lengthy waiting lists and lines to go through the vaccination process at organized clinics throughout the region. But those obstacles are no longer an issue, Zavaleta said.

“Doses of the vaccine are plentiful now, so lack of vaccine supply is not a reason to delay vaccination,” she said. “I was able to walk into a local pharmacy with my 15-year-old without an appointment and get him a COVID vaccine within 10 minutes. It’s easy and convenient now.”

Cameron County and the city of Brownsville have worked tirelessly to make the vaccine available to local residents free of charge, Zavaleta said. Brownsville held its most recent vaccination clinic earlier this week, and has made the vaccine available at a number of venues, including the weekly Saturday farmers market located at Southern Pacific Linear Park at 660 E. Ringgold St. The city of Brownsville is continually adding more opportunities for local residents to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and more information on vaccination events can be found atwww.btxcares.comor by calling (956) 394-0012.

ValleyBaptistMedical Center-Brownsville held its own public vaccination clinic earlier this week, and will look to host additional clinics in the future. For more information, followValleyBaptistHealth System on social media or visitwww.valleybaptist.net.

Harlingen also continues to hold regular vaccination clinics. For more information on upcoming COVID-19 vaccination opportunities, visit the city’s website atwww.myharlingen.us.

For those choosing vaccination or who have already received their first dose, Zavaleta offered final words of both gratitude and encouragement, reminding local residents to make sure they receive both doses of whichever two-dose vaccine they receive.

“I want to remind you to go back for your secondshot. Even if you’re a few days or weeks behind schedule, that second shot is extremely important for building up the high level of protective antibodies against the coronavirus,” Zavaleta said. “I’m so thankful for the COVID vaccine and I can’t stress enough how happy I am to be vaccinated. I’m very grateful to all of you who have gotten vaccinated to protect yourselves and improve the health and quality of life our community.”