Kitchen Angels Executive Director Tony McCarty said he was “shocked and surprised” when he received an email Jan. 11 from La Familia Medical Center: The nonprofit’s staff and small army of volunteers could sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations that day.
“I thought it would be another month and a half,” McCarty said. “I said, ‘Whoa. Let’s do it!’ ”
He emailed Kitchen Angels community liaison Lauren LaVail, who wasted no time registering herself and her co-workers, and then emailing 420 volunteers to get them signed up as well.
The volunteers, who help make and deliver meals to homebound residents in Santa Fe, were “both thrilled and confused,” LaVail said.
The state’s vaccine rollout has created ample confusion in recent weeks.
The Kitchen Angels workers were among several groups, including some teachers, who were able get at least their first COVID-19 vaccine dose before they were intended for eligibility through New Mexico’s vaccination program. As the state entered Phase 1B of its rollout — following inoculation of critical medical workers and nursing home staff and residents in Phase 1A — a muddled message about who could get the shot has led to many people receiving it “out of subphase,” as a Department of Health spokesman called it.
Spokesman Matt Bieber acknowledged there was miscommunication about the priority list.
The first subphase of Phase 1B includes New Mexico residents 75 and over and those 16 and older who have high risks of COVID-19 complications. The second subphase: “front-line essential workers unable to work remotely” — a large group that includes teachers, caregivers, grocery store workers and others.
Local schools and organizations like Kitchen Angels, staffed with essential workers and volunteers, began getting notifications from vaccine providers alerting them of available doses.
On Thursday, the Department of Health began canceling some vaccination clinics for teachers and staff as it worked to refocus the effort — and a limited vaccine supply — on higher-priority people.
Jill Dixon, director of development at The Food Depot, a regional food bank that has served a growing number of Northern New Mexico residents in need throughout the pandemic, said she was one of 23 staff members and a number of volunteers who were inoculated last week.
Before the state released the details of its vaccination phases, the organization was unclear when workers would become eligible, Dixon said. “We weren’t sure what kind of vaccination prioritization we’d be getting.”
And then an opportunity emerged, almost out of the blue.
Dixon said she and her colleagues were “elated” to get vaccinated.
“If one of us were to get infected, we’re such a small outfit it would likely shut down most of our operations,” she said. “… We’re trying to keep our community fed. And we need to do everything we can to stay at our jobs.”
Kitchen Angels’ LaVail also was overjoyed about vaccine access for her volunteers.
“I felt like Santa Claus delivering gifts,” she said.
When she distributed the vaccination event code to her volunteers, LaVail said, it was like a feeding frenzy.
The vaccination clinic went smoothly and was well organized, she said, though she also described it as “a little loose.”
Nobody asked for her identification, LaVail said, and a staff member at one point asked if anyone else needed a shot — “like one of those concerts, where they had extra tickets and just started giving them away.”
“It only took about an hour,” she said. “It was no sweat. I had a sore arm and felt a little achy. That was it.”
Health care workers at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and La Familia Medical Center were offered the vaccine as part of the Phase 1A rollout. Now they are working to get others in the community inoculated.
The facilities are not always certain how many vaccine doses they will have to offer.
“There are a lot of supply chain problems, which stem from all the uncertainty at the federal level,” said Dr. Wendy Johnson, chief medical officer at La Familia.
Four weeks ago, the clinic received 300 doses, she said. The next week, zero. The third week, 100.
But Johnson said she remains confident the state will successfully roll out its vaccines.
“We should be going to [Phase] 1C in a month or so,” she said. “These vaccines are safe. They are the way out of this epidemic.”
Dixon, meanwhile, acknowledged the long line of people waiting for vaccinations — nearly half a million have registered on a state website and almost 163,000 shots have been administered, according to state data.
She also noted the importance of keeping her staff safe.
“It’s such a moral quandary,” she said. “We want to be safer because of what we do and who we’re providing food to. But I have read the news and I know there’s a sense of scarcity around the vaccine. It tugs at people’s hearts. …
“I can appreciate how people might’ve felt torn about getting the vaccine when they did,” Dixon said. “Should teachers be vaccinated before other people? Before other types of workers or other people who might have a medical situation? I get it.
“But for now,” she said, “I can just hope for a ramped-up production and easier access. For everyone.”