New Mexico earned the little-guy-makes-good recognition money can’t buy for its effectiveness in getting coronavirus shots to residents.
A Washington Post reporter gushed with praise in early March for New Mexico and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. “What was the strategy that made you all so effective?” the reporter asked Lujan Grisham in an interview, adding the state had administered “the highest percentage of vaccinations in the nation.”
Last month Politico headlined a story about New Mexico’s efforts: “The unlikely state setting the U.S. vaccination pace.”
But New Mexico’s coronavirus rankings have slid from the stratosphere in recent days. The numbers remain good but not preeminent, according to a tracking system provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wall Street Journal.
As of Monday, the tracking system showed New Mexico fourth among states with percentage of population fully vaccinated and ninth among those in the population that have received at least one shot.
The same tracking system said New Mexico was second in the nation in percentage of available doses that have actually been used — 89.1 percent, behind only Wisconsin.
New Mexico’s challenge now is the nation’s challenge, too. As more people get vaccinated, a large group that is tougher to reach remains.
They work during the day and have less flexibility to get shots. They live in rural areas where access might not be as good. They are undecided on whether to get the shots or they oppose them outright.
Those involved in getting vaccinations to people say this is not a time to let down. If anything, the job will become harder as public health officials strive to vaccinate balky or hard-to-reach citizens.
“I think the bottom line is, there’s more work to do,” said Josh Michaud, associate director of global health policy for the Kaiser Family Foundation in Washington, D.C. “And it’s more intensive work at this point.”
A state Department of Health spokesman wrote the agency has put greater emphasis on fully vaccinating people, “so it’s not surprising if we’ve been passed on the ‘first shots’ rankings by states that are prioritizing” those.
The spokesman, David Morgan, added in an email: “We’re not seeing New Mexicans being apathetic about vaccinations at all. … Research shows people want to hear from community leaders first, so our Trusted Voices effort is allowing local leaders from the grassroots level” to share their experiences with vaccination.
But Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer with Presbyterian Healthcare Services, acknowledged demand isn’t as intense anymore.
“We have seen a drop,” Mitchell said. “The vaccinations per day seem to be dropping a little bit.”
The numbers of doses administered in New Mexico show a significant decline from April 5-9 (113,471 doses given) to April 26-30 (73,188 doses) — a 36 percent drop.
Hope Wade, chief operating officer of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, said her institution held a Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccination clinic Friday and could have accommodated 200 patients. But only 80 showed up.
“We’ve definitely seen that demand come down a bit,” Wade said. “They’re seeing similar things across the state.”
Santa Fe resident Liam Watson is one who won’t get the shots. Watson, a 69-year-old retired teacher, said he has studied the vaccines. He is not sold.
“This is not a vaccine,” Watson said Monday. “This is an experimental drug.” He said he understands the coronavirus is real, noting people with lung problems or weak immune systems can be harmed by the disease.
Nevertheless, he said, he believes the vaccines can do harm as well. “It’s kind of like you take a gamble with this stuff.”
The state Department of Health reported Monday afternoon that 58.5 percent of eligible New Mexico residents — people 16 and older — had received at least one dose of the vaccine. And 44.5 percent of 1.68 million eligible people were fully vaccinated.
The CDC-Wall Street Journal tracking system bases its percentages on people 18 and older and on the entire population of states.
Mitchell said Pfizer hopes to gain emergency use authorization this spring to vaccinate children 12 and older.
Wade and Mitchell said state health leaders want to find the pockets of people who haven’t gotten the shots and provide mobile and pop-up vaccination clinics in those areas around the state. Pop-up clinics typically are in places where inoculations aren’t usually delivered, such as churches.
Mitchell said there is a growing emphasis on enabling patients’ health care providers to offer the vaccinations in routine medical visits.
“People trust their health care providers, and some people just want to get it from their health care providers,” he said.
Wade said Christus St. Vincent recently created business cards conveying the availability of vaccines and the ease with which they can be acquired. The cards are being distributed at the hospital, clinics and some churches, she said.
Kaiser’s Michaud said the nation is a long way from “herd immunity” — when enough people have immunity, either from vaccination or a past infection, to stop uncontrolled spread of the disease.
Michaud said herd immunity might require 80 percent to fall under that category, but that percentage is squishy because of the risk of variants of the disease and other factors. Lower percentages can be helpful, he added.
“We’re on the cusp of making a very big difference,” he said. “Is it perfect? No, but every additional vaccination over 50 percent is going to make a big difference.”