“You don’t have to wear a mask!” the man shouted as I approached the Army Store in downtown Killeen. 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 previous month. COVID-19 patients occupied 15 percent of the region’s hospital beds, among the highest rates in Texas. There were just five available ICU beds in the surrounding six counties.
I said I’d prefer to keep my mask on.
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. Killeen is home to Fort Hood, America’s third-largest military base, and the Army surplus business is competitive; there are around a dozen similar stores in the city of 146,000.
I asked King about the recent spike in coronavirus cases in Bell County. She said that her ex-husband had recently contracted the virus. The previous night his symptoms had become so severe that she drove him to the emergency room at the Baylor Scott & White Medical Center in nearby Temple, only to find the waiting room overflowing with patients. 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. “I keep hearing that people are getting [the virus],” said King. “I’m worried, especially since I have a kid who’s in school.”
Still, neither King nor her business partner wore a mask. King said she didn’t need one because she is fully vaccinated. 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. “I honestly don’t know what I can do,” said 21-year-old graduate student Chris Howard, who was sitting on a bench at the Killeen Mall, waiting to meet up with a friend. Howard is fully vaccinated, but he knows plenty of people who aren’t. “I have one friend who’s waiting it out. He’s heard about the side effects of the vaccine, and he’s waiting to see how his family and friends do.”
Just 34 percent of Bell County’s adult population is fully vaccinated, well below the state’s overall rate of 53 percent. 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 272. Urban and border counties generally have significantly higher vaccination rates than rural counties. “There’s really two Texases,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine. “The major urban areas look pretty good, and the border with Mexico looks pretty good [in terms of vaccination rates]. 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. Then there’s the political gap: Democratic-leaning counties have higher vaccination rates than Republican-leaning ones. Of the state’s 36 congressional districts, the 14 with the lowest vaccination rates are all held by Republicans, many of whom have opposed restrictions on indoor gatherings that might reduce revenue to businesses, and some of whom have downplayed the risks posed by COVID. 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. “These rural counties are very much conservative strongholds,” Hotez said. “I think that’s probably the dominant [factor], given all the rhetoric coming out of conservative groups, the cable news channels, that kind of thing.”
Bell County is traditionally Republican but trending purple—Donald Trump won in 2020 with just 53 percent of the vote. Though the actual vaccination rate for the county is probably higher than 34 percent—the Department of Defense doesn’t divulge the vaccination numbers for soldiers serving at Fort Hood—local political leaders acknowledge that far too many of their constituents are forgoing the needle. “We’ve got people who, for whatever reason, just don’t believe in the vaccine,” said Killeen mayor Jose Segarra. “Every time something negative is reported, they seem to cling on to that, [ignoring] everything that is good about it.”
One of the vaccine skeptics is Bell County Republican party chair Nancy Boston, 81, who has led the local GOP since 1990. “One day we hear one thing, and the next day we’ll hear something else,” she told me. “So you can’t believe anything, even from the people that you should hold in high regard.” When I asked whether she was concerned about the delta variant, Boston suggested that the variant was somehow created by the vaccine.
“Why do we have a new delta variant?” she asked me. “Is it because they got injected with the first [vaccine]?”
“Do you believe that?” I asked.
“I don’t believe anything,” she replied. “I don’t trust anybody or anything I hear.”
“So how do you decide what to do?”
“I just take care of myself,” she said.
Boston is unvaccinated, although she worries the publication of that fact will induce an infected person to spit in her face—“there might be some Democrats who would do that, you know.” If there is a COVID surge, Boston said, it is probably caused by undocumented immigrants crossing the Southern border. (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 people who are creating misinformation, especially if they’re aware of what they’re doing, are harming the community,” said Dr. Alex Arroliga, the chair of medicine at Baylor Scott & White. “We’re talking about people living and dying.”
Calee Travis, the chief nursing officer at Bell County’s Seton Medical Center, said that some of her COVID patients refuse to believe they have the virus, even as they get sicker. “I’m like, how do I convince you? The tests are positive.” Other patients ask for the vaccine, leaving nurses to explain that it’s too late.
The United States is currently experiencing what experts call a “pandemic of the unvaccinated.” Unvaccinated individuals account for more than 94 percent of all new COVID cases, 97 percent of all hospitalizations, and, in Texas, 99.5 percent percent of all deaths. The stark figures have prompted some vaccine holdouts to finally get the jab, but many others are still willing to take their chances. I met Noah, a 33-year-old fast food manager, sitting with his teenage daughter on a bench outside the IMAX cinema at the Temple Mall. Noah, who declined to give his last name, told me that he had taken several of his coworkers to the hospital after they contracted COVID, but that he won’t get vaccinated. “If I’m not having symptoms, I don’t see the point in not letting my body do what it naturally does,” he explained. 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. “What you’re doing by having the vaccine is reducing the risk that the virus will get somebody that you love,” Arroliga said. “The more people who are vaccinated, the less the virus will spread.” With breakthrough infections on the rise thanks to the virulence of the delta variant, even vaccinated people are at risk. So far, however, breakthrough cases have been rare. Of the almost 8,800 who have died in Texas because of COVID-19 since early February, only 43 were fully vaccinated. When vaccinated people do contract COVID, they experience milder symptoms and are less likely to be hospitalized.
County health leaders worry they’re at the beginning of a fourth coronavirus wave. “When you look at the trend line on new infections, it’s pretty much a forty-five-degree angle, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to go down anytime soon,” Travis told me. She said that Seton Medical Center, like many other hospitals, is facing a severe shortage of nurses. The ones who remain are burned out. “A lot of our nurses have been through the whole pandemic, and they’re exhausted. It’s very frustrating for them, especially when about ninety-nine percent of the new patients are unvaccinated.”
Bell County Judge David Blackburn, the county’s top executive, said he’s doing his best to persuade vaccine holdouts to get the shot. Blackburn, a Republican, doesn’t share Boston’s skepticism toward the vaccine. 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. “The vaccine is readily available at a multitude of places, so we’re not looking at opening up those large public sites again,” said Temple fire chief Mitch Randles, who also serves as the city’s emergency management coordinator.
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. In July, he ruled out a statewide mask mandate, tweeting that “now is the time for personal responsibility.” With the state government in retreat, Texans are fending for themselves. For Gerry RamStone, who owns a kiosk at the Killeen Mall called, well, Gerry RamStone that sells “healing” crystals, that means providing free masks and hand sanitizer to customers—although few use them. At the height of the pandemic, he said, nearly everyone wore a mask inside the mall; now, perhaps one in four does so. “All of us here in the mall are scared of getting shot or getting punched if we ask someone to put on a mask,” RamStone told me. “Remember what happened last year? Remember how many security people got killed at stores [in other states] for asking people to put on a mask?”
RamStone is vaccinated, but he knows many of his customers aren’t. He tries to be sympathetic. “The core of my business is a metaphysical shop, a psychic shop,” he said. “So I believe that anything is possible, and I accept everyone. Every culture, every belief … I don’t discriminate between unvaccinated and vaccinated.”
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. Sales have been so strong that RamStone is expanding into a permanent space, next to Kay’s Jewelers and Candy Corner, where he will provide tarot readings and sell metaphysical books with titles like Ascension Magick and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Spells and Spellcraft. 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.
“The pandemic,” he stated confidently, “will last another five years.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Governor Greg Abbott’s name.