Up to 30 percent of medical staff at New Mexico’s largest hospitals have declined to be inoculated for COVID-19, with some waiting to see the side effects in co-workers and others outright refusing the shots, hospital officials said in a joint news conference Tuesday.
The level of resistance among front-line medical workers in Northern New Mexico — the first group eligible for inoculations under the state’s vaccine rollout — is lower than in some areas of the U.S., including parts of Ohio, California and Texas, where more than half of hospital workers have reportedly refused the vaccine.
But it’s a far higher rate than medical officials would prefer.
Matt Bieber, a spokesman for the state Department of Health, indicated in an email Tuesday the agency wasn’t alarmed that more than a quarter of hospital workers in New Mexico were refusing a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The United States’ vaccination effort has only been underway for a month,” Bieber wrote. “DOH expects that hesitancy will decline over time. Polls indicate that things are trending in this direction.”
Dr. David Gonzales, the chief medical officer at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, said about 70 percent to 75 percent of health workers there have accepted a vaccine.
Some Christus St. Vincent workers wanted to see how others fared from the shots before getting their own, he said during the virtual weekly update on medical facilities’ COVID-19 efforts.
“And after they saw how they did, and that their side effects were minimal after the first dose, the rest of the workforce started signing up for their vaccinations,” Gonzales said.
Dr. Rohini McKee, chief quality and safety officer at the University of New Mexico Hospital, said that facility doesn’t ask workers whether they are rejecting the vaccine — or why.
But McKee said roughly 80 percent of UNM Hospital workers have been vaccinated so far.
Because the vaccine is available in the U.S. through an emergency federal authorization, there isn’t a precedent for requiring medical workers to formally decline it and explain why, as they might for vaccines that have been fully licensed, said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, chief patient safety officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services.
Those who refuse the established vaccines must take other precautions to protect patients, he said.
The doctors said they hope to reach a vaccination rate closer to 100 percent at their hospitals in the coming months as they educate employees about the safety of the vaccines and workers see colleagues suffering no serious adverse effects. In the meantime, they said, people must continue to wear face masks, practice social distancing and avoid mass gatherings to ensure daily cases of the coronavirus continue to decline in the state.
“It is a very, very small decrease that we’re seeing — not one that inspires a whole lot of confidence,” McKee said.
Although fewer people are hospitalized in New Mexico now for COVID-19 than in previous weeks, hospitals are seeing a higher than usual number of patients with other illnesses, such as the flu, the doctors said.
“While we’ve seen a decrease of COVID cases … we also remain above seasonal typical volumes, running 110 to 120 percent of usual capacities,” Salvon-Harmon said, referring to Presbyterian facilities.
Dr. Vesta Sandoval, chief medical officer at Lovelace Health System, said that organization also is seeing a high volume of patients. “The plateau we are seeing is at a very high level. It is not a great sense of comfort to all of our facilities.”
The doctors also addressed the faster-spreading strain of the coronavirus that was first reported in Europe and recently emerged in New Mexico.
They cited reports showing the current vaccines are proving effective against the mutated virus.
Although the new strain is more transmissible, it doesn’t cause a more severe illness, McKee said. While that appears to be a good thing, she said, more people catching the virus leads to a higher mortality rate.
“We have to take this seriously,” she said. “We have to double down on the behaviors we know work against this virus until we’re all vaccinated.”