Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Dominick Armijo closed his eyes and braced for the sting.
He was one of the first New Mexicans to receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a landmark moment in the state’s fight against the virus that has killed nearly 2,000 state residents.
Armijo, nursing manager at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, then gathered with four colleagues who also got the vaccine Monday as a small crowd erupted into applause.
“Quick and easy – painless,” Armijo said of the vaccine.
By day’s end, 50 employees at the Santa Fe hospital had received vaccinations against COVID-19, becoming the first group of New Mexicans innoculated against the virus that first struck the state nine months ago.
The shot given to the Christus St. Vincent employees was the same vaccine being rolled out at hospitals throughout the country on Monday. As many as 20 million people may be vaccinated by the end of 2020, marking just the start of the largest vaccination campaign in the country’s history.
Christus St. Vincent received a total of 975 doses of the vaccine – one of the only hospitals in the state to have received any vaccines so far – CEO Lillian Montoya told the Journal on Monday.
Gallup Indian Medical Center, which is run by the Indian Health Service, also received doses of the vaccine.
Thousands of doses arriving
Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said New Mexico is slated to receive 17,550 doses of the vaccine through Wednesday, all of which will go to frontline health care workers.
Hospital officials said the initial doses will go to employees most at risk of contracting COVID-19 while working. Armijo and many other Christus St. Vincent employees who received shots on Monday work in Frost 19 ward, where staff treat dozens of COVID-19 patients every day.
The hospital has seen an influx of patients in recent weeks, both from the Santa Fe area and patients transferred from more rural facilities, as cases have surged in Santa Fe County and elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of us that come into direct contact,” said Dr. Rafael Garabis, who also received the vaccine. “We believe in the PPE (personal protective equipment) we’ve been using … but this adds an extra layer.”
Other New Mexico hospitals aren’t far behind.
Calling it the “bright spot on the horizon,” top physicians at Albuquerque-area hospitals said during a news conference Monday that they are expecting to receive their first doses of the vaccine in the next few days. Lovelace Health System, for example, was expecting to receive the vaccines Tuesday and distribute them Wednesday, said Dr. Vesta Sandoval, chief medical officer at Lovelace.
University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare Services are also expecting their first doses soon.
Doctors at Presbyterian and UNM said they hope to vaccinate their entire health care workforce by the end of the year.
The drug’s arrival comes as New Mexico reported 21 more coronavirus deaths Monday, making it the deadliest seven-day stretch of the pandemic so far. The state has averaged about 32 deaths a day over the past week – roughly three times as many as its longtime peak from mid-May, when about 10 residents a day died, according to a Journal analysis.
But hospitalizations fell for the third straight day and the state is now averaging its lowest number of new cases a day since mid-November.
Dr. Irene Agostini, chief medical officer at University of New Mexico Hospital, said the hospitals have divided their workforce into tiers. The first vaccines will go to first tier, which is those who work directly with COVID patients. They then hope to quickly expand to all other health care workers.
“We all know we’ll be getting more vaccines in the next weeks. So, we are confident that all the health care workers who work in our hospital – that includes anybody who would come into contact with a patient by any means – will get vaccinated,” Agostini said.
The batch of vaccines coming early this week will be enough to vaccinate a third of Presbyterian’s health care workforce, said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, chief patient safety officer at Presbyterian. He said the Emergency Use Authorization the Pfizer vaccine received from the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t allow hospitals to require their employees take the vaccine. But, for the most part, hospital officials said their employees are eager to get the shot.
People receiving the shot will take two equal doses, the second coming three weeks after the first, Salvon-Harman said.
The DOH has scheduled a news conference for today to discuss the initial rollout of the vaccine.
Despite the arrival of the vaccine, health care officials said it’s not time to put away the masks as it will likely be many months before the vaccine is available to the general public.
For those reasons, physicians ask that people continue to practice social distancing, wear masks and avoid large gatherings during the upcoming holidays.
The 21 deaths reported Monday included adults ranging in age from their 40s to their 90s. Six were from Bernalillo County, the most populous county in the state.
There were 860 people with COVID-19 hospitalized throughout the state on Monday, according to state officials. While the COVID patient population has dropped 8% in the past three days, Sandoval said the facilities remain above their regular capacity.
“Of course, this a great opportunity for us to be able to provide (the vaccine) to our workers,” she said. “It is not a solution at this point. It is not going to stop us from having other surges. So, we need to really understand that the need for the mask and the need to social distance still exists.”