NM battles lies about the virus and the vaccine

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The clamor for COVID-19 vaccines in New Mexico doesn’t seem to be abating, with more than 107,000 doses administered in the past seven days. But here and nationally, public health officials are assessing how to get shots in the arms of those who aren’t so eager.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M., said Thursday that ensuring the public has “clear and transparent” information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is key to getting more vaccine uptake across the country.

“Unfortunately, in too many places, we are struggling to provide trusted evidence-based information, creating a void. Misinformation and disinformation rushes to fill this gap,” said Luján, who chaired a two-hour hearing of his Senate subcommittee on communications, media and broadband.

Luján cited one survey that “found over 3 million Americans weren’t sure if they would receive the vaccine due to fears of how much it would cost. They’re worried about the cost of a free vaccine.”

“Reaching every single American who can safely get a vaccine is critical to defeating this virus,” Luján said at the hearing broadcast remotely from Washington, D.C.

New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins testified that the state is trying various avenues, including virtual town halls, to reach those people who are still not vaccinated, and still unregistered with the state online portal that shows vaccination appointment opportunities.

New Mexico Secretary of Health Dr. Tracie Collins

Nearly 914,000 New Mexicans have received at least one dose, leaving an estimated 766,000 residents identified as 16 or older still unvaccinated as of Thursday’s DOH data.

The DOH estimates the total number of New Mexicans eligible to get a vaccine at 1.68 million.

Of those, more than half have registered with the state to receive a vaccination, but about 48%, or more than 800,000 residents, are unregistered.

Collins, in fielding questions from the subcommittee, said New Mexico DOH has expanded its communications department, and has a joint information center with an outreach team “that keeps close tabs on rumors, misinformation and other vaccine communications challenges.” A team then designs “communications materials” to address those issues, she added.

“But many of our best communications efforts don’t involve state employees. Instead, they involve the voices of New Mexicans from across the state,” Collins said. She referred to the DOH “Trusted Voices” campaign, which is a series of YouTube videos featuring New Mexicans discussing the vaccine.

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said that, as the availability of the vaccine has increased, “now we’ve got people who are resistant to get it into their arms.” He said that is especially true in rural areas.

“Are you able to track the vaccine refusal rates across your state?” Tester asked Collins.

“We are definitely using our dashboards to track … how many people are getting registered,” she replied, “and we’re working closely with community leaders to understand what’s behind anyone who is refusing or not interested in the vaccine.”

Tester asked what kind of adjustments New Mexico is making “to try to make inroads to folks who say, ‘We don’t want to do that.’ ”

“We want to understand why,” Collins replied. “We’ve had surveys that have been distributed to certain communities … and we are working with interfaith agencies. We need to find that role model to communicate with those various sectors.”

In New Mexico, one of the counties that has achieved a low test positivity rate and low new case count is Lea County. The southeastern New Mexico county is among 20 statewide with a “turquoise” designation requiring the least amount of restrictions on business activity during the pandemic.

But the state dashboard shows far more Lea County residents have been vaccinated than have registered with the state for a vaccine. Less than 13% of residents have registered compared with 35% who have received at least one dose. About 28% are fully vaccinated.

It isn’t clear how many Lea County residents have traveled to nearby Texas to get a vaccine.

Tester told his fellow senators that getting the vaccine “takes a tremendous load off your shoulders.”

“But if you’re still required to live the same lifestyle after you take the vaccine as you did before, that’s a real negative in some people’s eyes,” he said.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., told the subcommittee she was concerned that rumors and misinformation fueled by social media and the internet are keeping people from signing up for shots.

She recalled a constituent telling her his mother-in-law canceled her appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine because she read on the internet there would be a tracker planted in her arm when she got the shot.

Klobuchar cited the congressional testimony of a physician earlier this week who stated that 73% of vaccine disinformation posts on Facebook and 17% of such posts on Twitter originate from the same 12 sources.

“I’m just picturing these 12 people out there pumping out lies,” she added.

Luján said misinformation can easily undermine the public trust.

“By now, we know that vaccines work, over 120 million Americans have been vaccinated and the end is in sight.” But he decried statements by major media outlets that “undermine our effort to get back to normal.”

For instance, Luján took issue with Fox News host Tucker Carlson stating this week on his show, “Maybe the vaccine doesn’t work and they’re simply not telling you.”

Carlson questioned why national health experts want vaccinated people to continue to take safety precautions, such as social distancing and mask wearing in certain circumstances.

“Does airing a statement like that bring us closer to defeating the virus and getting back to our lives?” Luján said. “Enough with this nonsense. And anyone else that is out there spreading this misinformation. Stop! You’re hurting people and you’re costing people their lives.”

Meanwhile, the latest daily COVID-19 count in New Mexico remained above 200 on Thursday, with the DOH reporting 230 new cases, nearly a third of them from Bernalillo County. One additional COVID-19 death was reported, bringing the state total to 3,997.

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