Richard Tripp showed up at 10:30 for an 11 a.m. appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine.
Half an hour early was way too late.
Tripp, the athletic director at West Las Vegas High School, received notification Jan. 8 that Alta Vista Regional Hospital was offering inoculations the following day for employees of the West Las Vegas School District. The short notice came after the state Department of Health’s announcement that teachers at K-12 schools were eligible to receive doses of the vaccine through New Mexico’s distribution program.
When Tripp arrived at the hospital, however, he found a line of cars over a mile long, many of them apparently from out of town. It turned out word had spread, not just through the school district but throughout the region, about the hospital’s vaccination clinic.
The crushing demand on the first full day teachers and school staff were eligible was a sign of potential problems districts face for COVID-19 vaccinations. It also highlighted challenges for the health care industry as the state’s vaccine distribution program opens to a wider population.
Tripp is still waiting for his vaccination. After sitting in line for two hours at Alta Vista and moving “almost 10 car lengths,” Tripp said, he heard from a New Mexico State Police officer the hospital had run out of doses, so he left.
“We heard there were people from Colorado, from Santa Fe. We heard of people coming across the border for it,” Tripp said. “I don’t know why or how, but I saw a few out-of-state license plates waiting in line.”
To help curb supply and demand and to better coordinate distribution of the two-dose inoculations, the state Department of Health and the Public Education Department are strongly recommending residents register online at cvvaccine.nmhealth.org.
“Once users have created a profile and entered their employment information and health conditions, NMDOH will reach out when vaccine is available and offer opportunities to schedule vaccine appointments,” agency spokesman Matt Bieber wrote in an email.
Meanwhile, school districts are working with health care partners to help teachers and staff members get vaccinated.
Anita Hett, head nurse at Santa Fe Public Schools, said the district has a plan in place with Albertsons to set up inoculation appointments. Some vaccinations could be done at school sites, Hett said, which would alleviate concerns that school workers might have to compete with other eligible vaccine recipients.
Organization is crucial to ensure those who want the vaccine can get both doses, she said.
“It’s not a perfect system, but if we are able to follow what the Department of Health wants us to do, we should be able to get everybody vaccinated,” Hett said.
In a news release Friday, Santa Fe Public Schools announced it was surveying prekindergarten and K-12 educators and staff to determine how many want the vaccine, which the district plans to begin distributing next week. The notice also directed employees to the Health Department’s vaccine registration website.
“I am very pleased to see that the state has prioritized educators and staff for vaccination,” Superintendent Veronica García said. “The sooner we can get our educators and staff vaccinated, the closer we are to returning our students back to in-person instruction.”
Rick Gutierrez, superintendent of the West Las Vegas School District, chalked up last week’s overwhelmed vaccination clinic to bad luck. He said the high number of people waiting in line caught many city of Las Vegas and San Miguel County officials off guard and led them to seek assistance from state police to coordinate and monitor the line.
Gutierrez, who said only a handful of local teachers have received their first dose of vaccine, expects the next round to run more smoothly. However, he said hospital and city officials may need to be more careful about how they relay information about availability.
“I think it goes back to people wanting to get back to whatever normal is,” Gutierrez said. “They’re jumping at any chance they can get to see where that takes them.”
In the case of one Santa Fe school, getting vaccine for teachers was all about timing. Katherine Diaz, principal of Atalaya Elementary School, said one of her teachers learned Jan. 9 a local pharmacy had excess vaccine doses that it was willing to offer the teacher and his colleagues. Quick coordination allowed most Atalaya educators to receive shots that day, including Diaz, she said.
The upshot was their doses were recorded with the Health Department, and they already are in line for a second dose, she added.
Diaz said there is growing enthusiasm that enough teachers will get vaccinated to help reopen classrooms, even in the hybrid model, in which elementary school students have two days of in-person instruction per week, combined with three days of remote learning. Campuses are currently closed.
“For me, personally, and a lot of staff that I have spoken to, they are excited to get the vaccine, and that is the thing that makes them feel safe to go back without hesitation,” Diaz said.
Tripp, meanwhile, said he will wait patiently for his turn to get the vaccine. He registered for a dose on the state’s website after he left Alta Vista. Later that same day, he received a phone call from a hospital staff member informing him it still had a handful of doses and he could get one. Unfortunately, Tripp said, he was out of town by then and declined the offer.
“I’m gonna wait my turn, and when it becomes available, I’m gonna get it,” Tripp said. “My take on the whole thing is, it’s here. It’s just a matter of time before you’re going to get it.”