After vaccinating workforce, hospitals prepare for the public

People make their way to a trial run of administering vaccinations at the University of New Mexico’s basketball arena, the Pit, on Tuesday, a day ahead of today’s official opening as a mass vaccination site. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Top physicians at area hospitals said between 70% and 80% of their frontline health care workers have accepted and received the coronavirus vaccine, and they are preparing to assist in a large scale vaccination effort of the general public.

The Pit, the University of New Mexico’s basketball arena, will open as a large vaccination clinic today after a “soft opening” Tuesday, when about 750 vaccines were distributed, said Dr. Rohini McKee, the chief quality and safety officer at UNM Hospital.

The physicians, during a teleconference with local media, encouraged New Mexicans to register for the vaccine at, so they can be notified when their vaccine is available.

McKee said, depending on how much vaccine is available, the vaccination clinic at the Pit can provide more than 1,500 vaccines per day for the next several weeks. Hospital officials said their goal is to eventually be able to give 3,000 vaccines daily at the Pit.

“We don’t know how much vaccine we will be receiving,” McKee said. “We get notified … with very little advance notice with how much vaccine we will be receiving, which makes the logistics challenging.”

The state plans to distribute the vaccine in phases. The vaccine is now going to people in Phase 1B, which is for people who are age 75 or older, those with conditions that make them more at risk of complications from COVID-19, and people who work in certain front-line essential businesses. The state is just at the beginning of the phase, meaning adults 75 and older are now the priority.

“We don’t prioritize who gets the vaccine,” McKee said. “We work with the Department of Health and we follow their guidelines. They come up with the prioritization and we are the operational arm of that.”

Some health care workers have opted out of the vaccine. But Dr. David Gonzales, the chief medical officer at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, said interest in the vaccine appears to be growing.

“There was a subgroup of other workers who wanted to see how the first (employees to receive the vaccine) did,” Gonzales said. “After they saw that they did well and their side effects were minimal after the first dose, then the rest of our workforce started signing up for their vaccinations.”

The continued rollout of the vaccine comes as New Mexico is seeing a drop in positive cases and hospitalizations.

State health officials on Tuesday reported 20 additional deaths and 691 new cases of the virus. The latest numbers brought the state’s seven-day average case count to 998 – the first time that number has dipped below 1,000 since Nov. 6, according to a Journal analysis. The state’s total death toll due to the virus is now 2,975.

As of Tuesday, 643 people were hospitalized in New Mexico with COVID-19, an uptick from the day before.

Physicians say their health systems remain in a precarious position that is well above their normal patient volume.

“The plateau that we’ve reached currently is at a very high level. We can’t afford a further surge,” said Dr. Vesta Sandoval, the chief medical officer for the Lovelace Health System. “We’ll be back in a situation where we’re going to be very, very tight on beds. Even though we have a plateau currently, it’s not a great sense of comfort.”

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