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Hundreds vaccinated as clinic at the Pit opens

Registered nurse Sophia Tracey-Gay gives the COVID-19 vaccine to Karen Beaton of Rio Rancho, as her husband, Thomas Ponder, watches. An estimated 1,700 vaccines were administered at the Pit on Wednesday. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

University of New Mexico’s Pit arena became a haven for hope Wednesday as hundreds turned out for COVID-19 vaccines, some braving snow, lines and physical infirmities that have kept them inside for months and fearful of catching the virus.

“It has gone so well, and people are incredibly grateful that we’re doing this,” said Christina O’Connell, who will be director of the Pit COVID-19 clinic for at least the next few months in the race to get people vaccinated.

About 75 volunteers, including from the Medical Reserve Corps and the UNM School of Medicine, turned out to help administer the vaccines to an estimated 1,700 on Wednesday

That number could ramp up to about 3,400 a day in the coming weeks, depending on supply of the vaccines.

“The staff and volunteers are so happy to be contributing to a solution and not reacting to the disease, so it feels really positive,” said O’Connell, a nurse who is also director of UNM’s Southeast Heights clinic. “It gives people hope.”

The push for bigger vaccination venues comes as New Mexico’s COVID-19 deaths hit 3,000 Wednesday. The state reported 34 new virus-related deaths and 884 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday.

The Pit clinic, which will be open 9 to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday, by appointment only, is sponsored by University of New Mexico Health Sciences and UNM. No walk-ups are allowed.

According to the DOH site, those eligible for a vaccine are anyone 75 and older and those 16 or older with underlying conditions that place them at a greater risk from COVID-19. Also eligible are first responders and other health professionals, who were the first group to be eligible.

Preregistration (at through the state Department of Health is required to get an appointment for a vaccine at the Pit. The Health Department then contacts those eligible, and an appointment and location are arranged. Individuals are selected at random within their eligibility group, so it is unclear how quickly they will be contacted after preregistering. But having a large vaccination site should shorten the wait.

The DOH also operates a vaccination call center at 1-800-600-3453 for those who don’t have computer access.

The general public could be able to receive the two-dose vaccine by the summer, state officials say.

The Pit, which had gone dark as COVID-19 shut down traditional college basketball and other crowd-gathering events, is the second of two of the larger sites set up in Albuquerque to administer vaccinations.

Expo New Mexico at the State Fairgrounds in Albuquerque also runs a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, also by appointment only through the DOH website or phone line.

Meanwhile, the state Aging and Long Term Services Department announced that by this Friday, all 309 nursing homes and assisted living facilities in New Mexico, including staff and residents, will have been offered the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine. The department is working with senior centers in New Mexico and national and local pharmacies to coordinate and schedule drive-through COVID-19 vaccine clinics at the centers and other buildings.

The UNM Pit clinic launch took one month of planning, which continued even as the doors were opened Wednesday.

At that point, a line of more than 25 people stretched out the door. O’Connell said the wait averaged about 15 minutes. Shots were given on the concourse level of the arena, to ensure accessibility and no potential interference with any activities on the Pit floor.

Among the biggest challenges? “Having enough volunteers to have a safe process,” O’Connell told the Journal. After 5 p.m. Wednesday, UNM Health Sciences Center sent out an “urgent” email seeking volunteers to staff the Pit clinic Thursday.

Karen Beaton of Rio Rancho arrived at the Pit on Wednesday morning by car with her wheelchair and her husband. She is a senior citizen facing surgery and said getting the vaccine was an “added sense of security.”

Beaton and her husband were at the back of the line to get inside the Pit until those ahead of them noticed she was in a wheelchair and stepped aside.

“It was so nice that people were saying, ‘we’re waving you forward, we’re waving you forward,’ ” Beaton said. “Especially now when so many people are not caring about others – to let us go to the head of the line, that was really special.”

Douglas Cardwell, 52, who operates and is an alternative health care provider, had nothing but good things to say after his vaccine.

“I’m extremely grateful; this is very exciting,” Cardwell said.

The vaccine, from Pfizer, expires after six hours, so care is being taken to ensure vaccines don’t go to waste, O’Connell said. That includes conducting hourly counts of vaccine supplies.

By midmorning Wednesday, a diverse group of people had received the vaccines, from EMS and police officers to senior citizens, O’Connell said. A “soft” opening of the Pit clinic occurred the day before.

For some at the Pit, receiving the vaccine that could end the deadly pandemic was emotional.

“Yesterday we saw a lot of people crying at the table in pure relief,”O’Connell said. “It’s a hopeful day for a lot of people.”

Journal photographer Adolphe Pierre-Louis contributed to this report.


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