The state Department of Health announced last week many people 60 and older would get higher priority for the coronavirus vaccine, but that didn’t help Anne and Frank Rivas.
The state’s decision applied to people with underlying health problems, and the Rivases don’t have any.
“We’ve taken precautions and stayed home,” said Anne Rivas, 68. “Are we not high risk anymore?”
From the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, health officials described older Americans as especially vulnerable to a severe case of COVID-19, the disease the virus causes. New Mexico’s vaccine distribution program now prioritizes people 75 and older, along with those 60 and older with certain medical conditions. Health care professionals, nursing home staff and residents, and teachers are also high on the list.
Other people over 60, who also feel vulnerable to the virus, say they’ve registered for vaccinations on the state’s website and are still waiting for a call. They’ve heard little from the Department of Health, other than a caution against going to a vaccination clinic without an invitation, and have expressed bewilderment over the distribution process.
They wonder if they have been passed over.
The Health Department indicated the challenge isn’t hard to explain.
“The greatest problem is supply and demand,” said spokesman David Morgan.
Doses from the federal government continue to rise, he said, “but the fact of the matter is right now we have more people wishing to be vaccinated against COVID-19 than we have vaccine available.”
‘It’s a lottery at some point’
New Mexico statistics sparkle compared to those of other states. The state is at the top of the nation in getting coronavirus vaccinations to residents. But one common complaint in Santa Fe is that seniors don’t know where they sit on the list or even vaguely when they might be invited by the state to get their shots.
“It’s just inexplicable to me why this is happening,” said Matthew Geyer, 67, of Santa Fe. Geyer received both of his shots — in Amarillo, Texas.
“The bigger problem to me is the lack of communication, the lack of any coherent messaging,” said Geyer, who has no underlying health problems. “The messaging in a thing like this is very important because people don’t know what to do.”
In many ways, New Mexico has performed exceptionally well in getting vaccinations to residents. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wall Street Journal reported Friday that New Mexico was leading the nation in people who had gotten at least one dose of vaccine, closely followed by Connecticut. New Mexico was second to Alaska in people who are fully vaccinated.
New Mexico data on Friday showed 27.7 percent of residents had received at least one shot, while 15.9 percent were fully vaccinated.
The data shows the oldest residents are receiving shots more quickly than others: 63.1 percent of New Mexicans 75 and older have received at least one shot, compared with 36.9 percent of people 60 to 74.
Dr. Wendy Johnson, medical director of La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, said she believes the state Health Department has done well so far.
“I’m so proud of our state,” she said. “I’m super proud of our governor.”
La Familia is a community health center that sees about 16,000 patients a year, many with low income
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said the state’s online registry system enables the Health Department to keep priority populations where they should be on the list.
But more than 700,000 New Mexicans have registered to receive the vaccine. That compares with over 807,000 doses the state has received so far, most of them vaccines that require two shots for full inoculation.
As of Friday, providers had administered more than 745,000 shots. Another 217,520 doses are being distributed here by federal agencies.
Until a recent increase in the vaccine supply the federal government was shipping to states, providers were rolling out doses almost as quickly as they were arriving in New Mexico.
Still, many seniors who believe they should be eligible for a shot say they hustled to sign onto the state’s registry, only to wait — and continue waiting.
Louise Lasley, 74, recently received a notice from the Health Department on her phone. She hoped it was her turn for the first shot.
“And no, that wasn’t the case at all,” she said. It was a message telling her not to go to a coronavirus vaccination clinic without an appointment.
Lasley said she has heart disease and high blood pressure, both of which qualify as underlying conditions that place her at greater risk of severe illness.
“It’s a lottery at some point,” she said of getting the shots. “There are just so many unknowns.”
On Saturday, however, Lasley said it appeared the Health Department had improved its coronavirus vaccine website since she last visited the site, which allayed some of her concerns.
Jennifer Tolbert, director of state health reform with the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C., said Friday that with demand far exceeding supply, “states are having to make decisions about prioritizing certain groups. Honestly, there are no good answers.”
For now, she said, there will be winners and losers.
Ethnic disparities emerge
The state Department of Health announced early this month it was rolling out a new vaccine equity plan to ensure it was reaching at-risk populations.
“We looked at the data, and we decided we could do two things better,” Lujan Grisham said in a news conference. “One, we can get much more granular at the ZIP code level to really make sure that we’re reaching high-risk minorities.
“And two,” she said, “we’re actually going to use census data as we go granular so that we have a vulnerability index factor that looks at everything from socioeconomic status to your minority or racial status and household circumstances.”
Lujan Grisham said about 25 percent of vaccine doses would be dedicated to communities most at risk for higher mortality rates and COVID-19 complications.
A day later, the city of Santa Fe said in a newsletter its leadership also was worried about vaccine distribution to Hispanic and Black residents because the vaccination rates for those groups were lower than for whites.
Mayor Alan Webber also said in the newsletter that Santa Fe ZIP codes 87505 and 87507, where caseloads have been highest, needed more outreach concerning vaccinations.
Kyra Ochoa, acting director of the city’s Community Health and Safety Department, said the two ZIP codes have higher populations of immigrants and low-income families than other areas. Residents in those ZIP codes also were receiving shots at much lower rates than areas with wealthier neighborhoods.
Ochoa said the city, which is not responsible for vaccinations, seeks to inform Hispanics and others of the importance of the vaccinations through various events, tote bags, phone banking, social media and in other ways, with some messaging in Spanish.
Statewide, 31.3 percent of Native Americans and 27.4 percent of whites have been at least partially vaccinated, according to Health Department data. That compares to only 19.4 percent of the Hispanic population and 14.7 percent of Black residents.
The disparities are wider Santa Fe County. Only 14 percent of Native Americans, 16 percent of Hispanics and 19 percent of Blacks are at least partially vaccinated — compared with 38 percent of whites.
‘Communication is poor’
Teachers and other educators recently won prioritization for the vaccinations in a state and federal effort to get schools fully reopened.
Loretta Medina, 49, said she fears that when new groups are prioritized, others fall further down the list.
“I haven’t been called yet,” said Medina, who has high blood pressure and other health problems. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Pam Nation, 69, who has diabetes and high blood pressure, said: “God, I’d like to get the vaccination. I’m tired of staying home.”
Nation said she knows neighbors who have been summoned to vaccination clinics and told to arrive quickly, evidently because of the vaccine’s short shelf life.
“I hear about some sort of computer program or something that somehow randomizes things,” Nation said. “But the communication is poor.”
Barbara Frick, who said she is in her upper 60s, said she recently received a call from Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center to come and get her shot.
She said she continues to receive various COVID-19 messages from the Health Department, which makes her wonder about the coordination between the state and its partner clinics.
Frick said she considered herself fortunate to get vaccinated. “And I think it’s been very, very frustrating for the seniors in this town … especially those with underlying conditions.”
She declined to say if she had any such conditions.
Morgan said the state’s partner medical providers contact the department about vaccine availability, “and together we coordinate notifying eligible registrants in that area” who can “make it to the vaccination location in a timely manner.”
He said those who have received vaccinations may continue to receive messages, including about post-vaccination practices.
Christus St. Vincent spokesman Arturo Delgado said vaccines left available from patients who didn’t show up go to others who can make it to the hospital within 15 minutes. These are prioritized by age, he said, and based on the state’s guidance, the hospital also reaches out to teachers off lists provided by school administrators.
Both Christus St. Vincent and Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center said they have wasted no vaccine doses.
Morgan said 24 entities provide vaccines in Santa Fe and close to 300 administer it statewide.
Geyer, meanwhile, said he wiped away a major concern by going out of state. He is one of possibly hundreds of Santa Feans who have traveled to Amarillo for shots.
It’s possible Texas has vaccine doses for outsiders because Texans themselves are responding modestly to the demand to get the shot, he said.
Geyer said he drove to Amarillo’s civic center twice and had no problem with long waits or bureaucratic tangles.
“They don’t care how old you are, and they don’t care where you’re from.”