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Race to herd immunity against COVID-19 not over yet

It happened suddenly.

Last month, my social media and messages bristled with comments and kvetching from angry, impatient or desperate people longing for their COVID-19 vaccine. This month, they blossomed with images of smiling, satisfied, grateful people showing off their shot selfies and Department of Health vaccination cards.

New Mexico ranks among the top states with the highest percentage of its population vaccinated against COVID-19, well ahead in the race to herd immunity. Now, finally, it feels like it. In my corner of the world, our personal winters are finally melting. Spring has sprung.

As of Tuesday, nearly 31% of the population in New Mexico is fully vaccinated; slightly more than 48% have had their first dose.

With all New Mexicans 16 years and older now eligible for a COVID-19 vaccination and without need to wait to receive an event code, our numbers are likely to shoot up even more.

By contrast, 19% of people across the nation are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We don’t have a lot of resources, you know, here in New Mexico,” Dr. Laura Parajon, deputy secretary for the state Department of Health, said in an interview this week with NBC Nightly News. “But we have a lot of heart.”

New Mexico also has a lot of minds absorbing the science behind the virus and the vaccine.

That hasn’t always been easy. Although a plethora of reliable information is available – the CDC, state DOH, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center and the Journal, for starters – the science and the data are sometimes confusing and conflicting.

So let me make it easy: If we ever want a semblance of normalcy again, if we ever want to eat, drink and be merry with others, attend a crowded concert or game, hug a loved one, open up the economy, squash new virus variants, stop dying in higher numbers, the vaccine is our best hope.

We are our best hope.

Experts say at least 70% of us must be vaccinated in order to reach herd immunity and diminish the threat of coronavirus and its variants.

Paramedic Shannon Farrell fills a syringe with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine last month. New Mexico ranks among the top states with the highest percentage of its population vaccinated. As of Tuesday, nearly 31% of the population in New Mexico was fully vaccinated; slightly more than 48% had the first dose. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health explained in a recent interview with the New York Times what is likely to happen if we fall short of this goal: “If we get stuck at 60 or 65% vaccinated, we are going to continue to see significant outbreaks and real challenges in our country, and it’s going to be much, much harder to get back to what we think is normal unless we can get that number higher.”

Which is to say that while New Mexico is doing well in terms of vaccination, we still have a long way to go.

To get there will take continued availability of vaccines, continued leadership and continued commitment of National Guard, DOH and health care workers, students and volunteers to keep jabbing arms. It will also take increased efforts to reach communities with high proportions of minorities, poverty, isolation and educational deficits.

My colleague Colleen Heild (another reliable resource) reported Saturday that the CDC ranked New Mexico 37th-lowest among 48 states in vaccine coverage for residents living in counties with such high vulnerabilities.

Perhaps an even harder subset of folks to reach are those who continue to believe that COVID-19 is no worse than the flu or a hoax to ruin the economy. These are the folks who argue that wearing a mask is a violation of their freedoms, who think Dr. Anthony Fauci is a liar, who believe the vaccine kills, isn’t safe or is really the government’s sneaky way of injecting us with tracking microchips.

In this sci-fi world, the virus and vaccine has been politicized, an attack by the left against the right.

A woman named DiAnn opined on Facebook: “NO MORE MASKS, NO MORE LOCKDOWNS. There is NO proven science these work.”

Where does this wackadoodle stuff come from? I rarely get an answer when I ask.

One woman declared on Facebook she would not get a vaccine because it is killing an enormous number of people. She said that information is on the CDC web site. It’s not.

When I asked her about it, she threw out a few expletives and blocked me.

And so it has gone.

We have moved so far from the days when Americans lined up for polio vaccines with little hesitation. We believed in the science, believed in our leaders. And we believed in the public good – and agreed, by and large, what that public good was.

A healthy dose of skepticism is a good thing, but not if it leads to leaning on conspiracy theories. Such alternative realities often develop in the maw of chaos, and these past few years have been among the most chaotic in many of our lifetimes.

I don’t know how we change the minds of vaccine naysayers other than to keep suggesting credible resources for information and to keep being good examples of how to work together to keep COVID-19 on the run. If that means posting shot selfies and smiles on social media, so be it.

This is a race. The virus is mutating, still able to overtake us again. New Mexico is in the lead at the moment, but the race isn’t over yet.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.




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