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Vaccine traffic jam: People wait hours to get into Rio Rancho event

Hundreds of cars snake through the parking lot outside the Rio Rancho Events Center for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic that drew more than 5,000 people Wednesday. Some waited more than 3 hours for a shot. (Courtesy of Chris Roberts)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

More than 5,000 New Mexicans, most responding to appointments made via the state’s vaccine registry, showed up Wednesday at the Rio Rancho Events Center for what was considered the largest mass vaccination clinic to date in the state.

Once there, they found themselves stuck for hours in their vehicles waiting for a shot. And some who saw long lines backed up to major roads, just turned around and went home.

After long waits to reach a parking area, those not using the drive-through faced extended waits on foot. And those unable to walk the distance remained in their vehicles inching along, hoping for a sign of a vaccine ahead.

There were no portable toilets in sight.

“It is a royal mess,” said one man on social media as he reported the experience of his wife waiting in line. “After one hour, she is in a line of cars 10 abreast that are still on the access road. Their engines are stopped and nobody is moving.”

“I could instantly tell it was a fiasco,” replied another man. “I sat there for a few minutes in a long line of eight cars abreast and saw all the cars on the other side, the rate at which they were moving, and got the hell out of there.”

Others said people should stop complaining and be happy to have finally received a shot.

“I would rather be 10 cars abreast than 6 feet under,” wrote another woman.

As the state announced an increase in vaccine doses expected to flow into the state (more than 97,000 a week expected soon), getting a shot can still be a challenge.

Most mass vaccination events, such as those at the University of New Mexico Pit Arena, have prompted few complaints.

But Wednesday’s event in Rio Rancho hosted by Walgreens was much larger and included a drive-up option. Several staff checking IDs or giving shots said the event was the largest mass vaccination clinic in New Mexico so far.

A DOH spokesman said 5,516 people were registered for a vaccine appointment through the state. Those who accepted had the option of either walking into the center or waiting in traffic to enter two drive-through lanes.

At one point, the line of vehicles trying to squeeze into the Events Center parking lot blocked the emergency and main entrances to the Sandoval Regional Medical Center to the north.

And, by 1:30 p.m., vehicles that made it on to the property were at least seven lanes abreast, creeping along for hours toward the Events Center.

City of Rio Rancho spokeswoman Annemarie L. Garcia in an email Thursday attributed the long wait to “the fact that there were hundreds of people who showed up without an appointment and … off schedule.”

“If they had an appointment at 2 p.m., they showed up at 11 a.m. hoping to get a vaccine sooner,” wrote Garcia, who said that the city, which provided public safety, traffic control on public roadways, and EMS services, hadn’t experienced such issues when the center had previously held vaccination events for 2,000 to 3,000 people.

She didn’t respond to a question as to whether anyone in the line was turned away because of a lack of appointment.

Walgreens spokesman Fraser Engerman said in email that the company’s goal of safely administering 5,000 shots to eligible patients at the event was “accomplished.”

“The majority of patients (were) in and out in under 30 minutes. However, we also experienced a few operational challenges, which inconvenienced and delayed some of our patients, and for that we apologize.”

After the event, the DOH sent out a notice scheduling booster shots for early April at the same location.

But those appointments will be split into two days, Garcia said.

“We have reached out to the City of Rio Rancho to improve the vaccination experience going forward” to reduce patient wait times and streamline the process, said Engerman.

Going forward, the number of people allowed into future vaccination clinics at the center will be scaled back, said Garcia, of the city of Rio Rancho.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the state of New Mexico reported five additional COVID-19 deaths and 263 new cases, including 21 new cases in Sandoval County and 92 new cases in Bernalillo County. The total number of cases as of Thursday rose to 189,158, while the death toll related to the virus is now 3,877.

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