Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
For some, getting a vaccine at the drive-through clinic at the Lovington fairgrounds is just a phone call away. But you have to be eligible under current state guidelines – 75 and older or over 16 with a health condition – and reside in the county.
In Albuquerque, one independent pharmacy booked a 1,000-person COVID-19 vaccination clinic for eligible at-risk people this past Saturday. But there’s another event next weekend, and people can register on the pharmacy’s website.
Meanwhile, hundreds of New Mexicans have taken short cuts by sharing event codes or portal information for appointments meant for others, or they have traveled out of state for the potentially lifesaving shots.
For instance, one Albuquerque resident traveled to Amarillo for a first-come, first-served coronavirus vaccine clinic. She estimated about 40 percent of vehicles in the parking lot had New Mexico license plates.
But more than 600,000 people statewide have signed up through New Mexico’s centralized vaccine registration system, which randomizes who gets appointments in a given eligible group and sends a notification when an appointment is available.
Although more than 272,473 people have received at least the first dose and an estimated 5 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, others eligible to be vaccinated have waited weeks without an appointment because of limited supply from the federal government.
For many, the wait breeds frustration and anxiety.
William Kenna Jr., an 85-year-old cancer survivor, told the Journal he couldn’t understand why his wife quickly got an appointment for the vaccine and he didn’t, after they both registered online at the same time weeks ago.
“All my docs say get the shot,” he wrote the Journal. “Doesn’t seem to make a difference to them (DOH).” Last week he received an email from the DOH notifying him of a vaccine opportunity. “Tried to make an appointment but couldn’t get in,” he told the Journal in an e-mail.
By then he had almost given up hope. “Seems politicians have a better chance than us seniors,” Kenna told the Journal.
On Friday, Kenna received another invitation from the state vaccine registration system and by noon had his first primary dose. “So maybe there is hope after all,” he told the Journal.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who at last report said she had not received the vaccine, last week acknowledged the national reports of the “chase” for vaccine “in far too many states.”
Her response was that in New Mexico, “I’m going to support random, fair, equitable distribution. If we all had the vaccine, different situation.”
At this point, that translates into the state through its registration system determining when each person gets the vaccine, where they get it and at what time.
In what the DOH says is one of a few centralized state vaccine distribution systems in the country, New Mexicans must complete an online registration form. Then, the applicants in each category are selected by random for an appointment depending on availability.
“The system we have created was intended to provide equity, fairness and a responsible effort, and when providers (of vaccine) don’t work with us exactly in that way, they actually prejudice other New Mexicans and it’s wrong,” Lujan Grisham said during a Wednesday public update on the pandemic response.
In Lea County, David Shaw, CEO and administrator of Nor-Lea General Hospital, said his staff, along with community volunteers, began preparing in October for vaccination distribution. Southeastern New Mexico has been hit especially hard by the virus, and he said there has been “a little bit of a sales job” to get people vaccinated.
Following state guidelines, Nor-Lea sorted out its patients 75 and older and those 16 and older with health conditions. “Each week, we call 600 people and offer them an appointment.” Two sites, one at the fairgrounds, and the other at the Hobbs Event Center, offer drive-through vaccinations.
“We now have had close to 6,000 to 7,000 initial vaccinations,” Shaw said. And some who initially refused have seen their neighbors vaccinated without adverse reactions and are calling back to sign up for themselves.
He said that the state DOH vaccine registration system “was a brilliant idea” but that Nor-Lea’s has proved that “we can be much more efficient, effective and much quicker using our own system.”
“And we haven’t wasted a single dose since Dec. 16 (when vaccinations were rolled out by the federal government),” he said.
The state registration system might be an option for the future, Shaw added.
The state gets its vaccines from the federal government, then distributes it among roughly 200 providers statewide. Department of Health Secretary Tracie Collins said in a news release that the DOH “has been forced to adjust distributions based on provider capacity, efficiency and local interest in getting vaccinated.”
Gone to Texas
As first reported by The Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper, some New Mexicans have traveled to Texas, where those 65 and older are eligible to be vaccinated.
An Albuquerque woman interviewed by the Journal said she had registered with New Mexico but then learned from a relative in Amarillo about the ease of getting vaccinated there.
After a four-hour trip to that city’s civic center, she waited an hour to be vaccinated. No appointment was necessary or residency required.
Most of those inside the Civic Center were getting their second booster vaccine, she said.
But she said her relatives in the Dallas area haven’t had such luck getting vaccinated although they are eligible.
“I know people are frustrated, and there’s all this uncertainty, and people are wanting to get vaccinated as quickly as possible,” she said.
Hundreds of Albuquerque residents, although eligible for the vaccine under state rules, have bypassed the state registration system to get vaccinated sooner.
In January, Presbyterian Healthcare Services set up a link to a scheduling portal for only health care workers and first responders, who were in the top, initial priority group for vaccinations.
But that link was “then shared in the community by unknown sources,” Presbyterian spokeswoman Melanie Mozes said.
By that time, the state had moved beyond the 1A group that included health care workers and first responders to the IB group, which includes those 75 and older and those 16 years and older with a qualifying health condition.
“We honored any appointments made prior to Jan. 12 at 3 p.m. by community members who qualified” in either of those two categories, she added.
“Subsequent to this event, the portal link was no longer live and we began a phone process.”
Mozes said “hundreds” took advantage of the link but were technically eligible under the state’s vaccination priority list. Some were offered the link by friends or others but declined to use it, according to Journal interviews.
Even when someone gets an appointment through the state registration website, there might be a road trip involved.
Kelly Genova of Albuquerque told the Journal her 68-year-old husband, who survived a heart attack, was offered an appointment last week. But the only location the DOH offered was 78 miles away in Grants.
He made the trip anyway. But once there, he learned he would have to go elsewhere for his booster shot weeks from now, but no location was given.
Luckily, she said, her husband was able to make the drive to Grants.
“But we have plenty of elderly in New Mexico, plenty of poor people who have cars that wouldn’t be able to even get to Grants,” she said. “What are they supposed to do?”
Genova said she has a friend in Albuquerque who got appointments this weekend for vaccines for his two adult disabled sons through the DOH website, but the vaccinations must be administered in Socorro.
Asked to explain, DOH spokesman Matt Bieber told the Journal in an email, “Matching eligible users with providers who have vaccine in real-time is an extraordinarily complex logistical task – and New Mexico is performing it far better than nearly every state in the country.”
As for providers of vaccinations scheduling their own appointments, such as Vida Pharmacy, Bieber said, “We are onboarding providers. It takes time for each one to learn the process and get up to speed.” Vida has been running its vaccination clinics at the National Hispanic Cultural Center and at the Raymond Sanchez Community Center, according to its website. Registration for the next clinic begins Tuesday.
As the state urges people to register for vaccinations on its website, at vaccinenm.org, the Biden administration wants to broaden access, speed up the vaccination process, and ship directly to pharmacies around the country, such as Walgreens and CVS, with plans to initially ship 1 million doses, according to news reports.
DOH spokesman Bieber said Friday that “we expect federal pharmacy partners to use the state registration system” to set up appointments for those eligible.
The governor echoed that sentiment last week at the press update:
“I have been, I hope, constructively critical to the new federal administration that getting vaccine out to all these different providers who don’t report, who have their own patient lists, who have their own systems, is not fair to the number of people who are waiting or who can’t drive across the border, or drive to a different community because someone’s got vaccine.
“We want people to have ease of access, and we want them to get vaccinated. But we’ve been really firm about getting our arms around … we gotta do this with the DOH system.”