HILLSBORO, NM – For much of 2020, it was as if the worldwide pandemic never existed in this 144-year-old hamlet at the foot of the Black Range Mountains in southwestern New -Mexico.
At least, that’s how it might have appeared to a stranger from a big city.
The postcode for Hillsboro and its neighboring communities of Kingston and Lake Valley has just four recorded cases of COVID-19. Vast expanses of open desert, ponderosa pine forest, and non-motorized wilderness overshadow any human settlement.
But for the 250 or so people who inhabit this historic mining area, the pandemic has stolen an essential part of village life: community gatherings. No Thanksgiving potluck. No Saturday night picker circle. Meetings limited to the wine bar and cafe.
Then, in February, an out-of-state construction company caused an unwanted scare that brought the community together sooner than expected.
Coronavirus Watch Newsletter:Sign up for daily updates straight to their inbox
COVID-19 is coming to town
In Hillsboro, you can drive across town at 25 miles an hour in under three minutes. A lone white horse without a saddle hung outside the post office doors for much of last summer. The region is populated mainly by retirees and breeders. Its part-time residents include a former lieutenant governor.
A few miles west, the Federal Highway Administration is undertaking a roughly $ 4.7 million project to replace a few steel truss bridges that have been on Route 152 since 1929.
The contractor hired for the job posted a 35-member work crew at an empty motel with a “for sale” sign in downtown Hillsboro. The team brought much-needed items to the only restaurant in town, dining inside when New Mexico gave permission to do so. Then at least one worker tested positive for COVID-19.
Deployment of the COVID-19 vaccine:New Mexico opens vaccinations to all residents 16 and older
“The age of the community is such that if we have an infection and the community spreads, we will pile up bodies like firewood,” said Ben Lewis, co-owner of Hillsboro General Store Café. “The construction crew was in the cafe and we served them.”
Lewis closed the restaurant. He and the three other employees, including his wife, were quarantined and tested. When their results came back negative, they deep cleaned the 142-year-old adobe building and reopened.
By then, word had spread and locals were worried. Ted Caluwe, 72, a renovation contractor who retired from Hillsboro ten years ago, has decided to take action.
“I doubt there are more than a dozen people here under the age of 60,” Caluwe said. “I felt the risks were very high and so… I made a few phone calls.”
100 doses of COVID-19 vaccine arrive
With the help of a state official, Caluwe and his wife contacted the New Mexico Department of Health to set a mobile vaccination date in Hillsboro. It took Socorro’s health department office a month to secure 100 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
The shots arrived in a large square blue cooler on March 26 with a nurse and administrator.
On that bright Friday morning, Caluwe stood at the entrance to the Hillsboro Community Center, his big ivory handlebar mustache hidden behind a mask that read, “In all of this together.” He watched the people line up outside, six feet apart, and let out a heavy sigh. In his quest to get vaccinated, he didn’t stop to think about the importance of this day.
“This is the biggest gathering we have had in a year,” he said. “It’s great to see all of my friends and neighbors here having their pictures taken and to know that in a matter of weeks we can achieve at least a little bit of normalcy.”
The community center, which features a wood-floored auditorium, stage, and thick copper curtains, was once Sierra County’s first high school. It was built by renowned El Paso architectural firm Trost & Trost, whose now historic buildings are scattered across the American Southwest.
Visual aspect:Comparison of COVID-19 vaccines
Betty Wanek, 96, had an appointment at 12:30 p.m. to get the shot.
Her daughter, Sherri Litasi, rolled Wanek into the auditorium in a wheelchair. Long-distance travel is a challenge for Wanek, who suffered a concussion and a broken hip five years ago. As a youth, Wanek welded ships in San Francisco during World War II. After the war, she sang in USO dance bands for troops stationed in Japan.
Today, Wanek stays with his two daughters in Kingston, nine miles down the road. From Kingston, the nearest hospital and the main vaccination site are almost an hour’s drive away. Litasi, the oldest of Wanek’s six children, cried after seeing his mother get the vaccine.
“Today is so important,” Litasi said. “It’s a great relief for all of us. Neither of us wanted (our mom) to die from COVID and we have been very careful this year. None of our brothers and sisters could come and visit and grandchildren and so on.
When asked what she looked forward to after being vaccinated, Wanek laughed, “Not having bad things.” She continued in a slow, labored voice, “My children have all been vaccinated. And now they can come and visit.
Increase rural awareness
New Mexico schedules most of its vaccinations online, sending alerts on available appointments via email and text. To get a cell phone signal in Hillsboro, locals have to climb a hill next to the cemetery. Some missed their alerts or received them too late after all available appointments had already been filled.
That’s what kept happening to Ben Lewis, the restaurant owner, who finally got his chance at the community center.
“It has not been an easy year,” he said. “We have had family members who have COVID-19 and we have had friends who have died.”
Hillsboro Cemetery features a chilling reminder of the latest pandemic: a faint line of small stones surrounded by graves marked “Children’s Row.” Death of the flu 1918-1919 ”
As of April 5, federal data showed New Mexico had the highest percentage of fully vaccinated residents (26.2%) in the country.
Monitoring of COVID-19 vaccine distribution by state:How many people have been vaccinated in the United States?
New Mexico’s efforts to send mobile units to rural communities like Hillsboro began in earnest on March 11, according to Laura Parajón, the state’s assistant secretary of health. With the help of FEMA and the National Guard, the Department of Health sends eight mobile units per week.
“We will accelerate in April and May to reach more and more communities,” said Parajón. “There is more demand than supply right now.”
Insulin rationing. Skip meals. A woman’s struggle to survive on minimum wage
A community heals together
While vaccination day brought together many longtime Hillsboro residents, it also introduced them to some of the city’s new residents.
Lindsay Fox, an emergency room doctor who last worked at a hospital in Newark, New Jersey, saw up to 100 corpses during the height of the pandemic during a single shift. She decided to withdraw from the front lines in October and come to New Mexico, where she eventually found Hillsboro.
“I’m trying to figure out how to heal myself,” Fox said.
She struck up a friendship with Vietnam veteran Timothy Dusharm, 66, who moved to Hillsboro two years ago after feeling “spiritually bankrupt.” Dusharm was against getting the vaccine. His long discussions with Fox changed his mind.
“She convinced me it would be selfish if I didn’t protect everyone,” he said.
Dusharm received his vaccine. Fox, 36, was there to reassure him. She also volunteered to track people’s waiting period after their injection and remained vigilant for anyone with negative side effects.
After a month in Hillsboro, Fox felt like she could make New Mexico her permanent home.
“It’s really nice to feel that there is hope on the horizon that we can get together with people again,” she said.
Follow journalist Mónica Ortiz Uribe on Twitter: @MOrtizUribe
When will everyone be vaccinated against COVID-19? Here is how the vaccine deployment is going