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Amid delays, NM adding staff to vaccine call center

Calling themselves “tappers,” nurse Lily Ouellett, right, and Angela Owens work to eliminate air bubbles in their syringes. They helped vaccinate hundreds of people at Tingley Coliseum on Wednesday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Ten months of self-quarantine to avoid catching coronavirus felt like “prison” to Barbara, a 92-year-old Albuquerque resident who was elated to hear last Friday that she was old enough to qualify for the new COVID-19 vaccine.

Except she doesn’t have a computer, so she can’t register online for the vaccine. And her flip-top cellphone doesn’t permit text messages, so she can’t communicate with the state Department of Health to set up an appointment that way.

Her efforts to get a vaccine through the new DOH call center have been in vain.

“I’ve waited for hours,” she told the Journal on Monday. “I spent two hours one day, and over two another day listening to that recorded message” that puts callers seeking vaccines on hold.

“I finally hung up when my arm went numb,” Barbara said. “It seemed hopeless.”

State health officials acknowledged Monday that New Mexicans faced long waits and had trouble getting through Friday to the new vaccine call center, and they said they’re determined to fix the problems.

Dr. Tracie Collins, who leads the Department of Health, said the state has steadily added call center agents since last week, and she asked people to be patient as the state makes improvements.

Among the planned upgrades is a more robust callback feature so people can get a call when it’s their turn to talk to an agent, rather than having to stay on the line.

“We’re quickly expanding how many people can answer the phone calls,” Collins said in an online news conference.

The state should have 21 people staffing the hotline by Wednesday, with the goal of 41 agents by the end of next week, a state spokesman said. On Monday, the call center had received about 1,100 calls by 2:25 p.m.

400,000 registered

New Mexico launched the call center Thursday to help people register for a COVID-19 vaccine. It complements a state website where people can sign up online and be notified when a vaccine is available.

Nearly 400,000 have registered.

“This website went up at warp speed, like the vaccine,” Collins said. “We’re still trying to make improvements.”

The next priority for the vaccine is adults 75 and older, followed by anyone 16 or older with a pre-existing medical condition that increases their risk of COVID-19 complications.

Collins said a substantial portion of New Mexico’s population will fall into those two categories.

But she stressed Monday that the state’s vaccine providers may administer doses to people outside the priority groups as a way to ensure no vaccines go to waste once they’ve been thawed.

“It’s not perfect,” Collins said. “We just need to get vaccine in arms, and we don’t want to waste doses.”

New Mexico ranks No. 12 in the country for COVID-19 vaccines administered per capita, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New Mexico had administered 78,143 vaccines through Monday – a partial figure, officials said, because just 81% of vaccine providers are reporting their figures. About 170,300 doses have been delivered to the state, according to the Department of Health.

Many frustrated

Barbara, for her part, asked that her last name not be used out of fear that people might think she was a “pushy old lady” trying to jump ahead in line for a vaccine.

Her frustration has been echoed by others who have contacted the Journal in recent days.

Another woman, who described herself in an email as a 70-plus-year-old behavioral health provider with underlying health conditions, told the Journal she received a text back after sending an email to the DOH seeking the vaccine. The text said she could schedule an appointment to be vaccinated.

“Within moments,” she told the Journal, “I attempted to do so, only to receive the message that ‘this event is full.’ Seriously?”

She made multiple calls to the DOH without success, she said.

Collins said the state is doing the best it can with the limited vaccine supply now available. Appointments can fill up quickly, she said.

Barbara is still able to live in her own home, avoiding the plight of some her age who reside in long-term care facilities in New Mexico where COVID-19 has taken a deadly toll.

She realizes getting a vaccine can be a “life-or-death matter” for some. But on a personal level, she said she wants to be vaccinated so she can visit her first great-grandchild, due in March.

“But I’m in limbo,” Barbara told the Journal on Monday. “If I could get a vaccination, I would be a pretty happy grandma.”

Morale boost

Top physicians at Albuquerque-area hospitals said that they have administered close to 25,000 doses.

Doctors for the Presbyterian, Lovelace and University of New Mexico health systems said administering the COVID vaccine has gone smoothly. Front-line health care workers and first responders have been getting the vaccine, as have others, such as some administrative employees at community practices.

“It was an immediate boost in morale,” Dr. Denise Gonzales, the medical director at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said of health care employees receiving the shot. “People finally had light at the end of the tunnel.”

The doctors said that the vaccine is being distributed based on guidelines set by the Department of Health and that doses have not been wasted. A few times when someone didn’t show up for their shot, the hospitals found someone to take their place.

“These are indeed hopeful times for New Mexicans,” said Dr. David Pitcher, the executive physician for the UNM Health System.

Encouraging data

New Mexico reported some encouraging data on coronavirus trends Monday. The state recorded about 930 new coronavirus cases as the number of daily infections showed signs of leveling off after a period of sharp growth.

The state has averaged about 1,400 cases a day over the last week – a 30% increase from the average Jan. 1.

The daily average has held roughly steady the past few days.

The share of tests that come back positive fell slightly. The test positivity rate dropped to 12.1% in the most recent seven-day period tracked by the state, about 2 percentage points lower than the average at one point last week.

New Mexico also reported 15 more coronavirus-related deaths Monday, pushing the statewide toll to 2,764.

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