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New challenge: Getting shots to the reluctant

Patrick Smigay receives his first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Saturday during a shot clinic in Southeast Albuquerque. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s note: a previous web link listed in this story was incomplete and should have directed individuals to to schedule their own vaccine appointments online.

Detroit is offering $50 debit cards to anyone who drives a resident to their COVID-19 vaccination appointment.

West Virginia’s Republican governor wants to boost vaccination rates by giving younger people a $100 savings bond. And in Connecticut, adults who show their vaccination cards can score a free drink at certain restaurants.

Residents line up at the COVID-19 vaccination clinic hosted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the city of Albuquerque at the Cesár Chávez Community Center on Saturday. National Guard members were on hand to assist with registration. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

In New Mexico, as announced last week, the incentive for those who have not been vaccinated is the chance to return to the most normal living in more than a year – like going to a packed Isotopes baseball game or full movie theater, albeit with a mask.

Emerging from a yearlong quasi-lockdown of business and commercial activity, New Mexico is one of a few states to predicate a full reopening on achieving a specific COVID-19 vaccination rate.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham promised last week that the state would fully reopen – with masks indoors – once it reaches a 60% full vaccination rate. And that is expected by June 30.

As of Friday, more 726,000 New Mexicans had been fully vaccinated, and 112,000 were scheduled for their second shot.

To reach the new state goal, about 282,000 more people need to be fully vaccinated.

Nurse Diane Johnson prepares syringes with the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a walk-up shot clinic at the Cesár Chávez Community Center on Saturday. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

But in recent weeks, mirroring national trends, New Mexico has experienced a drop in the number of people getting vaccinated.

New Mexico reported a 18% drop over the past week, compared with a national average decline of 12%, according to The Washington Post..

After a rollout in which New Mexicans were scrambling to get vaccinated, sometimes traveling to other cities or states for shots, the focus has now turned to those who are reluctant to get the vaccine – or who flat out don’t want it.

Nearly 42% of New Mexicans 16 and older are fully vaccinated, a count that includes nearly 6% of all doses in the state that were administered by federal agencies.

“We are weeks away from 60% of eligible New Mexicans being fully vaccinated, at which point the state will be able to safely graduate from the statewide map framework,” the governor said in a Facebook post. “New Mexico has consistently led the nation in efficient vaccinations, and because of New Mexicans’ hard work, we will be the first state guided by vaccination rates in safely and fully reopening.”

Other states tie shots to reopening

At least two states, Illinois and Kentucky, have tied eliminating business capacity restrictions to vaccinations.

The Illinois plan provided for all capacity limits to be removed once 50% of all residents 16 and older have been vaccinated and stable or declining health metrics were recorded during a 28-day period.

But because the virus surged after the plan was unveiled, restrictions will remain until transmission is under control, the Chicago Tribune reported.

Meanwhile, that state’s daily COVID-19 vaccination average continued to slip, prompting Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, to look at possible ways to incentivize residents to get vaccines, including supplying passes for preferred seating and admission to events for those vaccinated.

In Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, announced April 12 that Kentucky would lift restrictions on capacity, curfew and physical distancing at most businesses if the “vaccine challenge” of 2.5 million vaccinations was met.

He estimated the goal could be reached in three to four weeks, but since then public health data shows the rate of vaccinations has steadily decreased. As of last week, about 800,000 more people still needed to be vaccinated in Kentucky for reopening.

More than one-fourth of Americans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

According to a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of those who remain unvaccinated said they probably will not get a shot or definitely will not do so.

In a Kaiser Family Foundation poll, about four in 10 people said they would be more likely to get the vaccine if their employer arranged for on-site vaccination or offered them a $200 incentive to get vaccinated.

NM had some of the strictest orders

Until last week, New Mexico had some of the strictest health orders in the nation to protect public safety during the pandemic.

A Journal review of 50 states’ level of restrictions showed most that had imposed restrictions on capacity and gatherings had lifted or eased them earlier this year, while others are prepared to do so in May or in the coming months.

Lujan Grisham recently lifted maximum capacity limits on church services, and as of Friday, the state has opted to count each county’s vaccination rate in the risk assessment of whether to open businesses and other day to day activities to a greater degree.

That, and other changes to the health metrics, resulted in easing restrictions in several of the state’s most populous counties, including Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana.

Those three counties, now operating under green restrictions, are allowed a maximum capacity of 25% inside a movie theater, for example. The least restrictive level, turquoise, increases that maximum capacity to 33%.

States vary on lifting restrictions

In recent months, other states have gradually begun to reopen fully with the availability of three COVID-19 vaccines.

Just last week, for instance, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced he was lifting that state’s health order completely.

But New Mexico, along with Hawaii, California, Colorado and Oregon, was still enforcing restrictions to keep businesses closed or partly open, The New York Times reported.

Of those, California’s governor has now set a June 15 date for reopening, as long as the virus didn’t get worse. Yet increasing coronavirus cases spurred Oregon’s governor to impose more severe restrictions.

Dr. David Scrase, the New Mexico governor’s chief medical adviser during the pandemic, said vaccinations have helped new COVID-19 cases level off in the state.

“We’re in a place where we can be very optimistic,” he said, adding that an annual booster shot for COVID-19 is “likely in our future.”

The seven-day rolling average of new daily reported cases in New Mexico as of Friday was 216, marking a 12% increase in cases over the past week, The Washington Post reported.

Nationally, new cases declined by 17% over the same period.

State 6th-highest in vaccine distribution

New Mexico ranked first in the nation for distributing vaccines a month ago. But now the state has slipped slightly. Late last week, New Mexico was sixth-highest in distributing its vaccine allotment, giving 86% of the doses it has received.

On the vaccine front, New Mexico’s average number of doses administered per week declined by nearly 29% since April 8, from 114,211 to 81,405 doses as of Friday.

On Wednesday, about 12,000 people who registered on the state Department of Health portal had appointments for first dose vaccines, with more than 112,100 set for a second dose.

The 10-day halt of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine played a role in the slowdown nationally, but the one-dose vaccine wasn’t widely circulated in New Mexico when the state joined others on April 13 in pausing the shots. At the time, only 39,000 doses of the vaccine had been administered in the state.

New Mexico this week resumed distributing the J&J brand after federal officials studied the rare occurrence of blood clots in six women who received the shots around the country. The vaccine now comes with a warning of the possible side effect.

Lujan Grisham said during a press briefing Wednesday that when New Mexico hits the 60% threshold, New Mexicans will have much to look forward to – all capacity restrictions will be lifted for businesses and gatherings.

But certain COVID-safe practices, such as wearing masks indoors, aren’t going away even after June 30, she added.

She also wants to keep the public health emergency order in place after that date “because COVID-19 is still a deadly virus.”

And the emergency order allows the state to draw down federal support and funding that enables free vaccines, she said.

“It would be premature to discard those benefits. It would be premature to say mask wearing and public health precautions aren’t needed,” Lujan Grisham said.

And if the state doesn’t meet the vaccination threshold by June 30? Would the governor still be willing to put an end to restrictions in areas such as business capacity?

“I have an incredible confidence in our ability to get to 60%,” she responded.

Walk-in clinics offered

Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is easier than ever in New Mexico.

The city of Albuquerque and the Federal Emergency Management Administration are sponsoring a series of walk-in clinics over the next few weeks.

No appointment is necessary.

The sites, most in Southeast or Downtown Albuquerque, will have the Moderna vaccine available for anyone 18 and older, and insurance is not required.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Health over the past two weeks, in an effort to entice a segment of the population that includes young workers, is permitting New Mexicans to schedule their own vaccine appointments online at the website.

“This was widely requested by constituents – particularly workforce age – who wish to seek out all options that work best with their personal and professional schedules,” DOH spokesman David Morgan said Thursday.

In the past, the state required preregistration on its portal and would send invitations when a vaccine appointment was available. Those who couldn’t schedule an appointment would have to wait for another invitation.

Meanwhile, heeding a DOH call for primary care providers to help get their patients vaccinated, at least one major health care provider in the state is considering increasing the number of its clinics that offer patients COVID-19 vaccines at the same time they have appointments with their medical providers for other health issues.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services spokeswoman Melanie Mozes said patients over the past few months have been contacted to see whether they would like to sign up for a vaccination, depending on whether they were in an eligible group as determined by the state.

The city’s events are aimed at increasing access and simplifying the logistics entailed in getting a vaccine.

The schedule for the walk-in clinics is:

• City lot at Eastern and Palomas SE: May 3-8.

• John Marshall Health and Social Services Center, 1500 Walter SE: May 10-15.

Clinic hours are noon-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday.

Vaccines will be administered to anyone 18 and older while supplies last, no appointment necessary. Masks are required.

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