‘A race … as well as a lottery’

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

After weeks or months of waiting, checking for emails or texts, fearing you’ve been forgotten, there it is: an invitation from the state Department of Health for a potentially lifesaving COVID-19 vaccine “available at a location near you.”

A COVID-19 vaccination clinic held on Friday at the Rio Rancho Events Center was expected to draw about 1,700 people. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Thousands of New Mexicans a day are landing vaccines by registering with the state’s centralized registration system, which advises that sign-ups for appointments are on a first-come, first-served basis.

But, for more than a few people who received notices from the DOH about vaccine availability this week, relief quickly dissolved into disappointment.

Sometimes within minutes of a DOH notification arriving, they discovered that all available slots were taken. Vaccine events were already full.

“Apparently,” said the woman in her 60s who contacted the Journal, “the vaccine is a race in the state of New Mexico, as well as being a lottery.”

“Think (of) trying to get a good seat on a Southwest flight” was the reaction from another disappointed woman, who is among the 650,000 who have registered so far for a vaccine through the state’s website at vaccinenm.org.

State health officials say that instead of having to hunt down a vaccine at a medical provider, the DOH system does the matching of those eligible with a place and time to be vaccinated, depending on availability.

The randomized system is aimed at providing a more convenient and fair way to dole out the limited, but coveted, doses of Moderna and Pfizer shots.

Those who miss out on their initial invitations are informed they will get another notice when another vaccine appointment is available. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t frustration.

One woman told the Journal she woke up at 4 a.m. Wednesday to find out the DOH had sent an email notice at 7 p.m. the night before, telling her of the availability of an appointment.

Such notices advise the person to go to the DOH registration website, enter a confirmation code and type in a special event code to proceed.

By then, she had missed her chance. As of Friday, she hadn’t received a new invitation, despite phoning the DOH COVID-19 helpline.

On Thursday, state Department of Health Cabinet secretary Tracie Collins seemed to recognize that, at least for seniors, the appointment-making process is a challenge.

Dr. Tracie Collins

“We want to give – and we are giving – seniors extra time to respond to appointment invitations,” Collins said at a COVID-19 press briefing.

DOH officials didn’t have an immediate response when asked how long the department keeps appointment slots open after sending a notice. And there were no further details on Friday as to how much more time would be allowed under the change Collins announced.

In the massive statewide vaccination effort that involves more than 280 providers, some 359,716 primary doses had been administered as of Friday, according to the DOH vaccine dashboard.

The state expects to order 77,720 doses for next week, a 7% increase over this week, state health officials said.

Collins also announced this week that, for those who need “additional accommodation, transportation, wheelchair, we will work with you to ensure that that happens.” She said those who need help with registration can call the DOH helpline at 1-855-600-3453.

First dose appointments are opened up weekly to those eligible, said David Morgan of the DOH in an email.

Currently, the state is allowing vaccinations of those in Phase 1A, which includes medical workers and first responders, along with those 75 and older, and 16 and older with chronic health conditions in Phase 1B.

Appointments are set about 7 to 10 days in advance “to allow people time to accommodate their schedule,” Morgan said.

Because of limited vaccine supply, appointments “are limited at each location to within our capacity to vaccinate,” he told the Journal.

“That said, in our effort to vaccinate seniors, we are considering potential barriers, which may include not having enough time to respond to appointment invitations,” he said. He said the DOH is working with its system “to give seniors extra time to respond.”

The DOH doesn’t overbook appointments to ensure that no vaccine goes to waste, he said.

“If a registrant misses their appointment, we have the ability to go back to the registration site to contact people to come get vaccinated. There is no shortage of people willing and available to do so.”

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