Mama T’s Road to Ruin — known for a chile-smothered chicken-fried steak that’s big enough to be served up on a car hood — is a can’t-miss joint if you’re anywhere close to this small town in Quay County.
As restaurant owner Brian Cox went about his day while feeding the people of Logan, he paused to consider why so few people in his part of the state have gotten their COVID-19 vaccine.
“How are they gonna make a vaccine to prevent something they know nothing about?” asked Cox. “I constantly hear people worrying that the side effects are going to be worse than the actual thing the shot is supposed to prevent.”
Skepticism, isolation, politics, fear, fatigue: All seem to play a role in New Mexico towns and counties where vaccine-takers are few and a distrust of the coronavirus pandemic — and government’s attempts to deal with it — run deep.
The numbers tell the tale: In many locales, particularly those close to Texas, vaccination rates are 10 percent, 20 percent or 30 percent below the rest of the state.
And some, like Cox, say there’s a reason for that.
“It was one of those deals, especially in rural America, locals were against it 100 percent,” Cox said of the state and federal government approach to the pandemic, including vaccinations, in places like Quay County where just 41.8 percent of residents have been inoculated.
Of the other New Mexico counties bordering Texas on the state’s east side, only one — Union — has a vaccination rate of more than 50 percent. Lea County is at 41.2 percent, followed by Curry County at 39.6 percent. Roosevelt is the lowest at 32 percent.
Contrast that with other areas of the state, where much of the over-16 population has at least one shot, and it’s plain there are two New Mexicos — one ready to lend an arm and one nowhere close.
Numbers in areas more receptive to the vaccine are vastly different. McKinley County, devastated by COVID-19 through much of 2020, has the second-highest vaccination rate at 77.9, trailing only Los Alamos County, which leads the state at 84.3 percent. Taos and Santa Fe counties are third and fourth at 73.1 percent and 73 percent, respectively.
Such figures seem astronomical when talking to people in places like Clovis.
Richard Tobin recently moved to the seat of Curry County with his fiancée, who he said is ardently opposed to the vaccine.
“She would never let me get the vaccine,” Tobin said as he bowled at a local alley in Clovis. “I do think the government has been out of control.”
Battling that perception is maddening for some medical providers in the area, who note the emergence of the delta variant of the coronavirus — which medical experts say is the latest danger for those who have yet to receive the vaccine — is poised to do damage in the area.
The lagging rates raise the eyebrows of national health experts, who point to states like Missouri, where high numbers of unvaccinated people have led to COVID-19 spikes.
“That’s what’s playing out in Missouri now as young and middle-aged people get sick and pile into ICUs. It’s what will happen in similar pockets like that across the country,” Dr. Peter Hotez said of the new variant’s disproportionate impact on communities with low vaccination rates.
Those concerns linger for New Mexico as well.
“Although the vaccines are very effective (90% effectiveness), these pockets of low vaccination still pose danger to the rest of the state because children under 12 (nearly 300,000 children) are still not vaccinated (since the vaccine has only been approved for 12 and up) and there are many people with medical conditions who cannot get vaccinated,” Sara Del Valle, a mathematical and computational epidemiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, wrote in an email.
LaDawna Brooks, chief of diagnostic and therapeutic services at the 22-bed Roosevelt General Hospital in Portales, framed the issue more directly.
“I know the U.S. has identified five hot spots,” she said. “Eastern New Mexico and West Texas is one of them.”
Yet if medical providers and some officials in Eastern New Mexico are frustrated by their neighbors’ unwillingness to get the shot, they also note undocumented workers who tend to Eastern New Mexico’s many ranches and dairy farms also have shied away from obtaining the vaccine.
“There is a divide in reaching some of our undocumented folks,” Brooks said.
She’s not wrong. A Lea County man who identified himself only as Antonio, originally from southern Mexico, acknowledged he hasn’t received the vaccine for fear of revealing his status.
“I would get the shot, but I don’t have a license,” he said, referring to how some clinics and hospitals in the area require identification to get a vaccine.
Dan Heerding, director of Clovis/Curry County Emergency Management, said the problem is the same in Clovis.
“Some people are very distrustful of the government due to their [immigration] status,” Heerding said while setting up a no-ID vaccination event outside Habitat for Humanity in Clovis. “We’re trying to get to the pockets that we can. To reach the population that is very difficult to reach due to their status.”
For Brooks, who has lived in the area since she was 9, other factors are in play as well, many related to what people see as conflicting information about the virus.
“We saw discrepancies in information regarding transmission (airborne or not), masking, virus spread (we had been told 6 ft. for most of the pandemic, but when schools started back desks could be 3 ft. apart) from the CDC,” Brooks wrote in a follow-up email. “This back and forth was scientists trying to better understand and interpret what was happening in real-time, but to the lay public, it appeared disorganized and not trustworthy.”
Though state Department of Health officials hope an increased push to reach people in New Mexico’s rural areas will increase vaccination, Brooks and Heeding acknowledged long-standing cultural barriers — not just politics or personal concerns — work against the efforts.
“As an entire community, we don’t really seek preventive care unless it is really needed,” Brooks said. “I think this [the vaccination] is seen as preventative care.”
“We’re so close to Texas. It’s almost that mentality,” Heeding noted, referring to the predominantly conservative politics of the two counties in which he works.
Such emotions play out in some of the state’s smallest places. In Southern New Mexico, an anti-mask/anti-vaccination protest — one of a dozen around the state — was organized in Deming. There was also one in Logan, population 620, where a kids’ mask-burning event was held in a parking lot near Mama T’s.
“People are sick and tired of it,” Cox said of the feeling of government overreach in his community. “I understand completely.”
For Brooks, who helps run the only hospital in Roosevelt County, anything that leads to an increase in COVID-19 in the region is a concern.
“A spike in cases anywhere in the surrounding area can overwhelm our system,” she said. “Especially if receiving hospitals are full and ground or air transport is inundated with calls.”