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Editorial: NM should reassess how it prioritizes who gets vaccines

Days after the state abruptly canceled COVID-19 vaccine clinics for hundreds of Rio Rancho and Albuquerque teachers because it’s not their turn yet, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced districts can go to in-person classes Feb. 8.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Albuquerque quietly got his shot even though many police officers and firefighters have not.

While reports of a smooth vaccination process at The Pit abound, the way New Mexico is queuing up – or not – does little to instill public confidence in the prioritizing protocol.

Rio Rancho Public Schools, Bernalillo Public Schools, Sandoval Regional Medical Center and others had worked with the state Department of Health and been cleared for the event only to have the state pull the plug with less than 24 hours notice. RRPS superintendent V. Sue Cleveland said “we have a lot of people very distraught, a lot of people crying” and pointed out teachers in Hobbs, Taos and Santa Fe have been vaccinated. Sen. Craig Brandt, R-Rio Rancho, added “the irresponsible decision of NMDOH to cancel these potentially life-saving vaccines will do lasting damage. …”

Union officials called the cancellation cruel and short-sighted. “We call upon the New Mexico Department of Health to fully account for the shameful breakdown of this process and for an increased transparency about access and availability of the COVID-19 vaccine to New Mexico’s hard-working educators,” said a statement signed by Billie Helean, local union president, and state union leaders.

DOH admitted it “mistakenly” approved the event. But since it had OK’d the clinic and had the vaccines, wouldn’t it have made sense to go ahead and vaccinate nearly 2,000 educators as planned? Granted, the state would have taken heat from senior citizens upset teachers were moving ahead. But just last week, President Biden said getting kids back in classrooms should be a priority, and based on her school announcement Tuesday, the governor obviously agrees. To do that safely, it seems teachers should move up in line – and Rio Rancho has been a leader in providing in-person learning.

Meanwhile, staffers for the city of Albuquerque said the state gave the green light for Mayor Tim Keller and some of his top staff to be vaccinated, which happened without fanfare – a contrast to his frequent press events. Yet as of Jan. 22, the city said 317 firefighters and 218 police officers had received the vaccine, a fraction of the city’s forces. Like teachers, these are men and women who don’t get to decide in advance who they meet with, unlike the mayor and his administration. In a slap to transparency, the city would not provide a priority list it was using to make decisions on distribution or reveal who among the city’s top leaders have received the vaccine.

A case can be made for some officials getting the shots, but they should be up front about it. Kudos to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who has said she will wait her turn to get the vaccine. Yet New Mexicans deserve a rationale for randomly selecting recipients from the Phase 1A and 1B groups that include medical first responders, those over age 75 and those with high-risk conditions. Shouldn’t an 85-year-old with multiple health issues get priority over a 24-year-old with one? Shouldn’t essential front-line workers like teachers and police be higher on the list to open schools and protect communities?

DOH Secretary Tracie Collins deserves slack because of her short tenure, and she’s apologized for the Rio Rancho mess while saying the state is not getting as many vaccines as it can capably administer. That shortfall, in-person school a little over a week away, make it essential New Mexico reassesses who it’s vaccinating, and in what order.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.