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In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, health care providers and facilities, local jurisdictions, and state agencies struggled to acquire personal protective equipment (PPE), such as masks, gloves, gowns, and hand sanitizers, for their patients and staff. Supplies of these items were extremely low and getting them shipped proved difficult when they were found. This supply shortage set the stage for the State of Texas and agencies that serve in times of need to devise an unconventional plan to locate, secure, and deliver PPE across Texas to those in need.
The plan centered on resurrecting a modern version of the mid-1800s Pony Express, where horses and riders moved mail across the United States to way stations that received and stored the mail. The new plan used pilots and drivers to move PPE and other medical supplies across Texas via trucks, pickups, and aircraft to warehouses. The plan involved agency personnel from the following state agencies Texas Division of Emergency Management (TDEM), Texas Emergency Medical Task Force, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service, Texas Department of Public Safety, Texas Military Department, Texas Wing of the Civil Air Patrol, Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service (ALEXT).
In the early days of the pandemic, when everyone struggled to acquire personal protective equipment, one state created a modern version of the Pony Express.
This modern Pony Express was built on the premise of TDEM securing PPE from vendors across the U.S. and other countries, with a central delivery point established at a TDEM warehouse in San Antonio. Once at the warehouse, TDEM worked with the state partner agencies mentioned above to sort and prepare orders – consisting of a variety of PPE, ventilators, and therapeutics such as remdesivir – to ship to awaiting hospitals, doctors’ offices, long-term care facilities, educational institutions, retirement homes, dental offices, local jurisdictions, and state agency offices. Orders were submitted via the State of Texas Assistance Request process. Then, a team of the Pony Express agencies serving at the alternate State Operations Center assigned them to the nearest regional staging area. The Pony Express aircraft, trucks, and pickups handled movement from the TDEM warehouse to the appropriate regional staging area and, finally, to the requesting entity. ALEXT ensured that deliveries reached their destinations as the state strived to protect the health of its citizens as COVID-19 ravaged Texas. The following sections focus on ALEXT’s efforts.
Phase 1 – Setup for Emergency Operations
During the first week of April 2020, ALEXT began deploying Pony Express drivers to each of the 10 regional staging areas across Texas. These staging areas were established in National Guard Armories, fire stations, or warehouses in El Paso, Midland, Lubbock, Dallas, Tyler, Lufkin, Houston, San Antonio, Corpus Christi, and McAllen. From these locations, PPE and other supplies received from the TDEM San Antonio warehouse were packaged and made ready for pickup directly from a regional staging area or for delivery by an ALEXT Pony Express driver to the jurisdiction or entity making the State of Texas Assistance Request. Deliveries were made around the clock and seven days a week. Holidays did not deter the delivery of PPE and medical equipment by the Pony Express. Such dedication allowed for the continuous flow of much-needed medical supplies and PPE across Texas to those in need. ALEXT Pony Express drivers and warehouse support team members built out 74,596 bundles or pallets of PPE, cleaning supplies, sanitizers, or vaccine ancillary kits while making an additional 16,533 deliveries of supplies to a wide variety of hospitals, medical clinics, dentist offices, nursing homes, schools, child care providers, long-term care facilities, and local and state governmental offices.
As the pandemic evolved and new coronavirus variants emerged, the Pony Express’s mission also evolved. When the State of Texas began to operate testing stations, the Pony Express was tagged with additional cargo to ship across Texas. ALEXT drivers began meeting aircraft flying test samples packed in ice coolers from various testing locations across Texas to deliver to one of several COVID-19 testing laboratories in Houston, Galveston, San Antonio, Austin, and Dallas. ALEXT drivers would secure samples from an airfield near these laboratory testing locations and ferry them to the laboratories for processing. Such deliveries required speed and efficiency to ensure samples were received and analyzed within the approved time window. By ensuring strict transportation standards were followed, nearly 4,000 COVID-19 samples were tested, and results were shared with test subjects as efficiently as possible.
Asa Jillson (on the right), Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Disaster Assessment and Recovery agent, along with a Civil Air Patrol pilot, give a thumbs up for the successful hand-off of COVID-19 testing samples during a Pony Express run to a testing laboratory in Houston (Source: Asa Jillson, 2020).
Phase 2 – Maintenance and Interagency Support
At the start of 2021, the Pony Express mission made another shift. Onsite and additional disposable testing kits were introduced along with large drive-through testing locations in the state’s larger metropolitan areas. These testing sites, along with those established at primary and secondary schools, chambers of commerce, local and state governmental agencies, nursing homes, and university campuses, had to receive steady shipments of testing kits to meet the demand. Having demonstrated their ability to keep the supply chain flowing, ALEXT drivers filled the bed of their trucks and pickups with testing kits and made their deliveries. The drivers continued to ride their circuits until the mission ended. Their efforts ensured over 4.2 million tests arrived at their destinations and reduced COVID-19 exposures to health care workers, students, teachers, first responders, local and state officials, business owners, long-term caregivers, and the public.
Finally, as vaccines against COVID-19 were developed and began to bear fruit in the form of vaccinations against COVID-19 and its various strains, the Pony Express and its ALEXT drivers mounted their trusted steads with ultra-cold portable freezers to race vaccines across Texas. Vaccine deliveries were made to local health care clinics, long-term care facilities, and mass walk-in and drive-through vaccination clinics around the Lone Star State. ALEXT drivers loaded with Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson vaccine vials for health care workers to place in the arms of Texans to help tide the COVID-19 spread. As the dust cleared across the trails, ALEXT Pony Express drivers delivered 1.04 million vaccine doses. In addition to vaccines, these same drivers delivered 2,522 doses of therapeutics to treat individuals suffering from COVID-19. Economists with the ALEXT have estimated the impact of the support provided by over 150 ALEXT personnel to the Pony Express reduced COVID-19-related hospitalizations by 6,500, $75 million in reduced hospitalization costs, and 1,100 avoided deaths.
As COVID-19 cases decreased and infection rates slowed across Texas, AgriLife Extension’s support of the Pony Express ended on June 30, 2022. The 21st-century version of the Pony Express outlasted the original by over eight months. Much like their 1800s counterparts, with drivers pushed to their limits and mounts being “rode hard and put up wet,” most, if not all, would agree that the protection of fellow Texans and having a small role in returning loved ones to their families were well worth every minute and every mile spent in the saddle.
A Texas A&M AgriLife Extension County Extension Agent from Val Verde County is one of over 150 AgriLife Extension personnel who secured vaccines for delivery across Texas from aircraft such as helicopters of the Texas Military Department as part of the Texas Pony Express (Source: Emily Grant, 2020).