A1 A1
top story
Crossroads health care workers prepare for logistical challenge of COVID-19 vaccine rollout
  • Updated

Dozens of Crossroads hospitals, clinics, and health care providers have signed up to distribute COVID-19 vaccines as they become available, and some could be distributing them before the end of the year.

There are at least 19 providers in Victoria County who have signed up to receive and distribute vaccines, according to an email from Lara Anton, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of State Health Services.

But even as hospitals and health care workers prepare for the massive logistical challenges of vaccinating Texans, there are still major unknowns in the state and federal government’s rollout plan for who will be prioritized for the initial vaccines and how many doses will be distributed.

“It’s frustrating, but it’s understandable because of how quick everything is going, so they are really just trying to figure things out,” said David Gonzales, the director of the Victoria County Public Health Department. “All we can really do is prepare to receive and vaccinate as quickly and as safely as possible.”

There are dozens of vaccines currently being researched and tested in clinical trials. Two vaccines — one from Pfizer, the other from Moderna — are furthest along in the research, testing, and review process, and both vaccines could become available to health care workers and Americans at highest risk of serious illness before the end of this year. On Friday, Pfizer submitted data to the FDA for an emergency use authorization. The FDA’s review process could take several weeks, but if Pfizer’s vaccine is approved, it could be distributed within weeks. Moderna has said it also plans to apply for emergency use authorization soon.

As drug makers get closer to having a vaccine ready, health workers in the Crossroads are preparing to distribute vaccines as soon as they receive them.

Both Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines require two injections to be effective, meaning that vaccine providers will have to make sure residents remember to show up for the crucial second injection needed to make the vaccine effective. And further complicating distribution, Pfizer’s vaccine has to be stored at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and can only briefly be kept at room temperature before it is injected.

Gonzales said he didn’t know of any facility in Victoria County that is equipped with the ultra-cold freezers that would be best suited to store Pfizer’s vaccine. Both Citizens Medical Center and DeTar Healthcare Systems have ordered such freezers, representatives for the hospitals said, and expect to receive the freezers soon.

Absent the high-strength freezers, Pfizer’s vaccine can be kept stored using dry ice. Gonzales said the health department was working to find a local supply of dry ice, and Citizens hospital has contracted with a commercial gas company so it can receive a steady supply of dry ice as well, said Dr. Daniel Cano, the hospital’s chief medical officer.

Cory Wasicek, the chief nursing officer at Refugio County Memorial Hospital, said he expects the hospital and its three clinics will likely only distribute the Moderna vaccine because of how Pfizer’s vaccine must be shipped and stored. Wasicek said if the state or the local trauma service area decided to divvy up smaller shipments of Pfizer’s vaccine, “we will work around the clock to vaccinate as many people as we can to make sure it’s not wasted.”

The hospitals and clinics who have told the state health department they are ready to distribute vaccines don’t know which vaccines they’ll ultimately receive. When providers signed up to be a part of the distribution process, they were required to include information about the storage capabilities, including what types of freezers and refrigerators they had, when that equipment was last certified, and more, Wasicek said.

Cano, the chief medical officer at Citizens, said the hospital is still waiting to learn how the state will distribute vaccines as they become available.

“I think it will really be up to (the Texas Department of State Health Services) to decide who gets what type, or if they preferentially give one facility one type because they have capacity for that one or vice versa,” Cano said. “But that part still remains to be seen.”

Despite the questions posed by the immense challenge of making vaccines available to every Texan and American who wants one, the information we have so far makes a few things clear, said Maria Elena Bottazzi, the associate dean of Baylor’s National School of Tropical medicine. The data released by Pfizer and Moderna so far show that their vaccines can produce a good immune response, that they are safe, and that they can prevent or reduce serious illness, Bottazzi said.

But a major remaining question is how long immunity will last, Bottazzi said. Some vaccines, like the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, provide lifelong protection, whereas others, like the flu shot, only provide protection for shorter periods of time.

“One thing we definitely do not know is how long the immunity will last,” said Bottazzi, who is also the co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “If we see that the immunity wanes we’re going to probably have to recommend a booster.”

With numerous different groups and researchers working to develop different vaccines, Bottazzi said she could foresee a future where people would get a certain vaccine based on their age and other factors, geographic location, and availability. So, for example, some vaccines might be better suited for adults over the age of 65, while a different COVID vaccine might be better for children.

Bottazzi and her colleagues are developing what’s known as a recombinant vaccine, the same technology behind the Hepatitis B vaccine. Because the procedure to make this type of vaccine has already been used in the past, the vaccine Bottazzi and her colleagues are developing will be cheaper and easier to manufacture, she said.

More vaccines, and more doses from Pfizer and Moderna, are expected to become available in the coming months. But the general public is unlikely to have access to a vaccine until the middle of 2021, or even later, according to the state’s distribution plan. The current version of the state’s plan says that health care workers, first responders, people over the age of 65 and people with pre-existing conditions will be prioritized for the first vaccines, but it remains to be seen exactly what groups will have access to how much vaccine at what time.

Public Safety
Crossroads in the Crossroads
Train collision survivor shares story to prevent more wrecks in train-active region
  • Updated
  • 6 min to read

Amanda Page Thompson and her three sons left an Inez restaurant like they had many times before when their whole world changed.

After pulling out of the parking lot in Inez, Thompson crossed the railroad tracks in her truck without seeing or hearing a train approaching. She and her sons collided with the moving train, suffering injuries that could have resulted in fatalities. Thompson was told her youngest son would not be able to walk or talk because of injuries from the train-to-truck collision.

From 2010 through 2019, residents in nine counties across the Crossroads were 1.5 times more likely to be in a train collision than the rest of the state, according to Federal Railroad Administration records.

Thompson and her sons are part of those statistics.

After she and her three sons recovered, Thompson’s life changed forever — professionally and personally, but also for the better in some ways, she said. She is glad she and her sons were not added to the region’s train-related deaths.

According to Federal Railroad Administration records, from 2010 to 2019, the Crossroads experienced 107 train-related incidents, which includes collisions, and 10 fatalities. Both per-capita incidents and per-capita fatalities were higher than the state and national averages.

This Crossroads includes Calhoun, DeWitt, Goliad, Jackson, Lavaca, Matagorda, Refugio, Victoria and Wharton counties. Of those, Refugio County had the highest incidents and fatalities per capita during that decade with seven incidents and one fatality among a population of 6,948, according to 2019 estimates by the U.S. Census Bureau.

More incidents occurred in higher-populated counties such as Wharton, Matagorda and Victoria counties with 16, 18 and 45 incidents, respectively.

Victoria County ranked fourth in the Crossroads for incidents with 45 incidents and three fatalities, making the county fourth in the Crossroads in fatalities among a population of 92,084 — more than 13 times the population size of Refugio County.

In Inez, which is just inside Victoria County limits, Thompson and her sons didn’t drive more than a block on a sunny day in August 2018 before experiencing the force of a moving train.

By the skin of their teeth

Thompson, of Vanderbilt, doesn’t like to drive over train tracks.

In fact, she said she takes notice when driving over them more than anybody.

Advocate File Photo 

Trooper Dillon Steadman with Texas Department of Public Safety, right, speaks with a representative of Kansas City Southern Railways at the scene of a vehicle and train collision. It happened at the crossing on Kolle Street near the intersection of Railroad Street in Inez.

Thompson had driven over the tracks at the intersection of Kolle and Railroad streets many times whether it was while leaving work at The Bomb Diggity Bar and Restaurant late at night or driving around town in Inez.

During the day on Aug. 15, 2018, she stopped by The Bomb Diggity, where she worked as a bartender, to pick up a paycheck and feed her three sons.

After they ate and pulled out of the parking lot onto Kolle Street in the family truck, they crossed over Railroad Street and then went up to the railroad crossing.

The next thing she remembers is waking up in a hospital in San Antonio.

She had driven the truck past the crossbucks, or warning signs, at a crossing that did not have a protective arm and into a moving train. The train hit the truck’s front bumper, changing Thompson and her family’s lives forever.

The impact threw the truck off the tracks. The steering wheel was forced into the front seat and Thompson’s lap. A tire was flung more than a block away. The truck flipped.

They spent 77 days in University Hospital in San Antonio after Thompson and one son were flown by helicopter from the collision in Inez. They dealt with brain injuries, a broken arm, cuts and even a tooth lodged through one son’s tongue. Multiple brain surgeries also were needed for the youngest son after their initial time in the hospital.

“I don’t even know how I have legs,” Thompson said of her injuries.

Because of an allergy to iodine that was unknown to the hospital staff, doctors had to revive Thompson at the hospital.

Medical professionals told the mother that her youngest son, who was 9 years old at the time, would not walk or talk again. Two years later, he is doing both.

All four have recovered with some minor scars are still visible.

“There’s nothing in the world that (would make) me try to beat a train with (my sons),” Thompson said. “I just didn’t see it, didn’t hear it.”

She said one son removed his seat belt to help another with his seat belt when the collision occurred. Thompson said it might have been the sun’s angle that caused her to drive onto the tracks.

“I’ll take blame for them,” Thompson said of driving without everyone being buckled in. “I don’t know if it was a noise factor ... I think it was just kind of everything.”

A new life and saving a life

Since the collision, Thompson has remarried and added three step-daughters and a husband, Eli Thompson, to her family. She stopped bartending and recently began a new career as a correctional officer with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in Cuero. The family also put a down payment on a new home that they recently moved into.

The youngest son, who was flown by helicopter from the scene, is also back in school.

“I have no complaints,” her husband Eli said. “Everything happens for a reason.”

For other drivers who might come across railroad tracks, Thompson said to just be careful, don’t take anything for granted and don’t live your life in fear.

Education efforts exist to prevent collisions like Thompson’s.

This is an ongoing endeavor for Texas Operation Lifesaver in Texas, the state with the most miles of train track at 10,539 miles, according to the Texas Department of Transportation.

Texas Operation Lifesaver is a nonprofit funded by short-line and major rail operators, such as Union Pacific, Kansas City Southern and BNSF Railway. Texas Operation Lifesaver aims to educate the public about railroad safety.

Trains don’t run on a schedule, and a train can hang over the tracks by about 3 to 4 feet.

These two facts are what Executive Director of Texas Operation Lifesaver Jessica Devorsky said are key for pedestrians and drivers to stay safe.

Additionally, she said many people don’t know that tracks are private property.

Because of this, about 95% of rail-related fatalities in Texas are considered trespassing whether they involve train-to-vehicle or train-to-pedestrian collisions.

According to the Federal Railroad Administration, there has been an 83% decline in collisions in Texas since 1972 — almost 50 years since Texas Operation Lifesaver began — yet trespassing incidents have increased in recent years across Texas.

Educating the public is no small task and has even included placing a vehicle that had wrecked in a train collision to show residents of Shiner and other cities what can happen with a train collision. Union Pacific also shares other educational information through its Operation Lifesaver chapters.

”Trains do not run on a schedule,” Devorsky said. “You might think you live in a place where you know what to expect when it comes to train traffic, but really we don’t know what’s going on, on the rails.”

Growing accustomed to when a train would pass, despite its inconsistent schedule, is a mistake Thompson said she made.

”I was so used to crossing that railroad track at 2 a.m., 1 a.m., 4 a.m. every night,” Thompson said. “And I guess I got complacent with it not being there.”

Incidents in the Crossroads

During the past decade, many counties in the Crossroads experienced higher per-capita incidents than the state and nation.

Refugio, Jackson and Matagorda counties ranked first, second and third in per-capita incidents among Crossroads counties, despite not having the largest populations.

This was followed by Victoria, Wharton, Lavaca, Calhoun, DeWitt and Goliad counties. Goliad County has fewer than 10 miles of train tracks and experienced no incidents or fatalities related to a train collision during the decade.

Crossings with only crossbucks have no physical barrier between drivers or pedestrians and the tracks, like one on SH 185 near SH 35, That crossing had one death and two hospitalizations.

Geoff Sloan / Geoff Sloan | gsloan@vicad.com 

Crossbucks and a stop sign sit at the railroad crossing a few feet away from the intersection of North Main and West Brazos streets.

In the city of Victoria, there are crossings without gates, some near major highways like a crossing near the intersection of North Main and West Brazos streets in central Victoria.

Gonzales County experienced 26 incidents and four fatalities among a population of 20,837, making it about 4.5 times more than Texas’ average for train-related incidents.

In Texas, 8,031 incidents and 588 fatalities occurred with a train among a population of about 29 million as of 2019.

Rail travel’s safety measures are imperative for counties that have per-capita incidents many times higher than the state or national averages.

Crossbucks are a type of sign near a rail crossing with two white strips at the top of the post that read “RAILROAD CROSSING.” This is one safety measure similar to flashing lights, reflective strips or crossing arms.

Devorsky said crossings with crossbucks aren’t necessarily more or less dangerous than other crossings.

Victoria personal injury attorney Mike Crane said a driver’s negligence at a crossing with only crossbucks, like the one in Inez, is unsafe.

He has tried train-related personal injury cases in the past in and around the Crossroads. He doesn’t take them on now because, often times, drivers do not follow safety signs or they try to go around crossing arms.

”When you’re running around the arm and don’t see the train, you ought to be looking for it,” he said.

Crane also said the amount of train traffic and train lines in the region also makes more incidents occur.

”In this area, it’s called Crossroads for a reason,” Crane said. “Everything pulls in here and goes someplace else on the train.”

Regarding the speed of a moving train, Crane and Thompson both agree.

You won’t beat it, they said.

”Even on a short train, if he can stop in 200 yards, that still does you no good,” Crane said. “And people are not as cautious about crossings.”

County (ranked from highest to lowest by incidents per 1,000 people)2019 Population EstimateIncidentsDeathsIncidents per 1,000 peopleDeaths per 1,000 people
Crossroads total261,253107100.410.038
Texas total28,995,8818,0315880.2770.020
U.S. total328,239,523114,7727,5320.350.023

top story
Port Lavaca Tree of Angels memorial canceled, virtual event to replace
  • Updated

The 18th annual Tree of Angels ceremony originally slated for next month in Port Lavaca has been canceled in light of rising COVID-19 cases in the state.

A virtual ceremony will be broadcasted in Austin that will include submissions from the Port Lavaca ceremony and other counties that canceled their event this year.

Mary Sue Woods, who is the founder of the Port Lavaca Tree of Angels ceremony, said she is thankful for the virtual option for the community.

“This will actually be their 30th anniversary ceremony in Austin, which is where the Tree of Angels started,” Sue Woods said. “People look forward to it every year, and I understand how much it means to people, but we have to be safe ... It’s good we have this virtual option.”

Verna Lee Carr, the executive advisor of People Against Violent Crime, said putting the event together has been difficult, but remembering victims is especially important this year.

“It has been tough organizing this online event for the entire state of Texas, but I kept thinking about the victims. With how hard this year has been, we have to remember them and what they need,” Carr said. “We can’t forget them. This is the least we can do for those who miss their loved ones.”

Last year, Tree of Angel ceremonies were held in more than 30 counties in Texas, but almost all of them have been canceled this year because of COVID-19 concerns, Woods said.

“They usually have Tree of Angels ceremonies all across Texas through the first week of December,” Woods said. “They’ve all been canceled except for maybe two or three.”

As part of a tradition started by former President and Governor George W. Bush, Gov. Greg Abbott proclaimed Dec. 1 through Dec. 7 Tree of Angels Week for the state of Texas.

Woods said she preemptively booked the Bauer Community Center in Port Lavaca for 2021’s ceremony and is hopeful the COVID-19 pandemic has subsided enough for the event to be held.

top story
Remembering those we’ve lost to COVID-19
  • Updated

The Victoria Advocate is planning a special memorial to the Crossroads residents we’ve lost to COVID-19 this year.

Everyday life is no stranger to death. But this year, COVID-19 has taken more than 300 Crossroads residents in less than eight months and irrevocably changed our community.

We’ve lost friends, neighbors, family, colleagues and other loved ones who we want to remember for the lives they lived.

If you’d like your loved one to be included, please call reporter Ciara McCarthy at 361-580-6597 or Kali Venable at 361-580-6558.

You can also email the newsroom at deliverydesk@vicad.com or fill out a form online at bit.ly/covid19memorial to be contacted directly by an Advocate reporter.