A man was arrested Thursday morning in Killeen after a call led Harker Heights police to believe a kidnapping was in progress.
It was a brutally hot afternoon in late July, and Bell County, where Killeen is located, was reporting around a hundred new coronavirus cases a day—a fivefold increase from the month.
There were just five available ICU beds in the surrounding six counties. As I stepped into the military surplus shop, the man, who had been taking a smoke break, stubbed out his cigarette and followed me inside.
Surveying the racks of old Army uniforms, helmets, and tactical gear, I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged woman named Deidra King, who told me that she and the man, who declined to provide his name, had opened the store in May. I asked King about the recent spike in coronavirus cases in Bell County.
She said that her ex-husband had recently contracted the virus. Rather than endure an hours-long wait, her ex-husband decided to tough it out at home.
A few days later, he took a turn for the worse and is currently in the ICU. Still, neither King nor her business partner wore a mask. Like many Bell County residents I met, they seemed fatalistic about the highly contagious new delta variant tearing through their community, even as health officials warn of a rise in hospitalizations among young, unvaccinated people.
Across Texas, vaccination rates range from 89 percent in Presidio County, in the Big Bend region, to just 17 percent in King County, a square of West Texas with a population of Urban and border counties generally have ificantly higher vaccination rates than rural counties.
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But then you get into the rural areas of East Texas and the Panhandle, and they look terrible. The divide is geographical, socioeconomic, and political.
Many lower-income and minority communities face challenges accessing health care even in normal times; not surprisingly, vaccination rates in these communities are lower than average. A recent poll by the nonpartisan Kaiser Family Foundation found that 86 percent of Democratic voters say they have been vaccinated, compared with just 52 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of independents. Bell County is traditionally Republican but trending purple—Donald Trump won in with just 53 percent of the vote.
There is no evidence linking the delta variant, which emerged in South Asia and was likely brought to America by air travelers, to undocumented immigrants. Similar misinformation is widespread on social media—which about a third of Americans say they rely upon for much of their news. Every time a Bell County newspaper or TV station posts a story on Facebook about COVID, the comments fill with dozens of posts touting outlandish conspiracy theories such as that doctors are misclassifying COVID cases and that vaccinated people are actually transmitting the virus to the unvaccinated.
The tests are positive. The stark figures have prompted some vaccine holdouts to finally get the jab, but many others are still willing to take their chances.
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Neither he nor his daughter wore a mask. Several people I met in Bell County framed the decision not to get vaccinated as a personal choice. But experts say people who refuse to get vaccinated endanger the entire community by allowing the virus to spread unchecked, and to mutate.
A large group of unvaccinated people is like a petri dish, breeding more dangerous variants of the virus.
So far, however, breakthrough cases have been rare. When vaccinated people do contract COVID, they experience milder symptoms and are less likely to be hospitalized. She said that Seton Medical Center, like many other hospitals, is facing a severe shortage of nurses. The ones who remain are burned out.
Although the county operated a few mass vaccination sites last winter, it now relies on private companies such as Walmart and CVS to distribute the free vaccine. In May, Governor Greg Abbott issued an executive order prohibiting governmental entities in Texas, including school districts, from requiring masks —making Texas one of just six states, all of them Republican-led, to outright ban mask mandates. At the height of the pandemic, he said, nearly everyone wore a mask inside the mall; now, perhaps one in four does so.
Remember how many security people got killed at stores [in other states] for asking people to put on a mask?
He tries to be sympathetic. Although a metaphysical store might seem out of place in a town better known for its massive military base, King of Swords is one of three stores at the Killeen Mall hawking magic crystals.
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After we chatted for a while, RamStone offered a free tarot reading. I accepted, and we sat down across from each other at a table covered with a blood-red cloth. RamStone shuffled a pack of oversized tarot cards and began dealing them face up, interpreting them one by one. After turning over the Chariot card, he warned of imminent car trouble.
Other cards indicated that I should drink less coffee and eat more lettuce. But what I really wanted to know was the future of the pandemic.
Ramstone closed his eyes, whispered an incantation, and went quiet for a moment. Finally he opened his eyes.