New Mexico is a microcosm for what is happening in the nation as the COVID-19 vaccination push begins to stall. Troublingly, a stubborn but significant minority of state residents — many on the state’s far eastern edge — are refusing the shots.
Reasons vary. As The New Mexican reported Sunday, some people suspect the vaccination is worse than COVID-19. Others simply don’t believe they are at risk of serious illness if they do get sick. Some refuse the shots because of politics. A few of the vaccine-hesitant lack access to health care or are concerned about their immigration status.
And that’s just the beginning.
But to truly emerge from the shadow of the pandemic, this has to change. Otherwise, more people will die and our hospitals will face more admissions. All unnecessarily, of course, because these vaccinations work. Just look at the numbers. Nearly 98 percent of recent COVID-19 deaths are among the unvaccinated.
The irony is hard to miss: New Mexico’s overall vaccination rollout has been one of the best in the nation. Some 63 percent of people have received both doses and another 71.5 percent received at least one dose as of July 9, according to the state Department of Health dashboard. But protection is unequal around the state.
In counties bordering Texas, the vaccination rate is disturbing — 32 percent in Roosevelt County and 39.6 percent in Curry County. It’s not much better in counties such as Eddy, Chaves and Otero.
Couple that with this news: Georgetown University researchers have identified five undervaccinated areas in the United States, concluding they could put the entire country at risk. West Texas and Eastern New Mexico form one of those bubbles where spread is likely, especially as new and more potent variants develop.
The threat is real because as the virus spreads, it mutates, and as it mutates the risk grows of a variant that will defeat even miraculous vaccinations. What’s more, children under 12 and many immunocompromised adults cannot be vaccinated, at least not yet. They remain at risk.
To end the pandemic, at least 60 percent of the population needs to be fully vaccinated — but without undervaccinated areas that will allow spread and mutation. The coverage needs to be more uniform for protection to hold.
Naturally, politics is at play — some of it local, some national. Some Republican officials are criticizing a door-to-door effort backed by President Joe Biden to encourage vaccinations. This tweet from Ohio GOP U.S. Rep Jim Jordan is typical: “The Biden Administration wants to knock on your door to see if you’re vaccinated. What’s next? Knocking on your door to see if you own a gun?”
An interesting statement, given that gun violence and COVID-19 are two of the nation’s biggest public health threats.
Meanwhile, the nation has two realities. There are counties. such as Los Alamos or Santa Fe or Taos, where a high percentage of people are vaccinated and the coronavirus spread has been slowed to a crawl. Then there are counties with low vaccination rates and a rapid rise in new cases, with the dangerous delta variant now accounting for more than 50 percent of COVID-19 cases, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
It’s a scenario local health officials want to avoid on New Mexico’s eastern plains.
All areas of our state and our nation deserve protection from coronavirus. Vaccinations are the key to getting there. Leaders — from the governor on down to local doctors — have to find new ways to counter disinformation. If that takes knocking on every door in Clovis or Portales, so be it.