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NM aims to boost Black and Hispanic vaccination rates

Bishop David Cooper

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Bishop David C. Cooper already got the shot.

But he will open the New Hope Full Gospel Baptist Church this weekend as part of a vaccine drive aimed at reaching African Americans and anyone else who may have been initially skeptical about COVID-19 vaccination.

It’s part of a shift in strategy by the state Department of Health to smaller, more-targeted events aimed at reaching communities hit disproportionately hard by the pandemic and less likely to get vaccinated – whether because of reluctance, inconvenience or other barriers.

In New Mexico, just 31% of African Americans are fully vaccinated – the lowest share of any ethnic group tracked by the state. The Black vaccination rate, for example, is 16 percentage points behind non-Hispanic whites.

Cooper, for his part, said he wants to set an example for a community with reason for skepticism after the Tuskegee experiment, in which researchers withheld medical treatment from African Americans.

But he said he hopes the church can serve as a trusted place for anyone looking for reassurance about the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

“We want late-comers,” Cooper said. “We’re not trying to just get New Hope vaccinated. I’m trying to help the whole community.”

New Hope’s transformation – for a few hours at least – into a vaccination site comes as New Mexico moves from a strategy of pushing to get shots in arms as quickly as possible to targeting communities that might otherwise be left out.

The effort involves walk-in clinics, mobile vaccination teams in all four regions of the state, Spanish-language information and operation of a call center to schedule appointments.

The Department of Health also has built a map of the state based on an index that takes into account income levels and other factors – a guide for deploying vaccines where they might do the most good, officials said.

“We want to make sure every single person in the state gets access to life-saving vaccine,” Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Laura Chanchien Parajon said in an interview.

Rising participation

But substantial vaccination gaps remain among ethnic groups in New Mexico.

About 37% of Hispanic or Latino residents – the largest ethnic group in the state – are fully vaccinated, or about 10 percentage points lower than non-Hispanic whites, according to state data. Native Americans, at 38% fully vaccinated, also trail whites, 47% of whom are fully vaccinated.

Asian residents have the highest vaccination rate at 63%.

Overall, about 49% of New Mexicans are fully vaccinated.

The state breakdown includes some information shared by the Indian Health Service and federal government, Parajon said, not just vaccines administered through the state. But the federal work may not be entirely reflected in the state’s numbers.

Vaccination gaps, in any case, persist at the federal level.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 30% of the nation’s Native Americans are fully vaccinated – the highest share of any ethnic group. Whites are next at 25%, then Asians at 21%, Blacks at 16% and Hispanics and Latinos at 15%.

Parajon said New Mexico is using research to help guide its vaccine equity plan.

The state was the first in the nation, she said, to work with the CDC on a survey program – called a rapid community assessment – designed to collect information on what certain communities are thinking about vaccination and develop ways to increase participation.

For parts of the Hispanic community, for example, Parajon said the surveys showed concern over the potential cost of the vaccine, whether health insurance was required and whether immigration status might be tracked.

The state worked with the Mexican Consulate and launched Spanish-language forums to tailor the message, she said.

The Department of Health now tries to make it clear that the vaccine is free for everyone, no insurance is necessary and immigration status isn’t shared with federal authorities.

In fact, Parajon said, no identification is required at all. For walk-in clinics, registration ahead of time is encouraged but not required.

“We’re trying to break down all these barriers to get the vaccine to people,” Parajon said, “especially now that we have so much supply.”

In an online briefing with President Joe Biden earlier this week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said New Mexico had used its vaccine registration portal to track which populations weren’t participating, allowing the state to adjust its strategy to get doses available to harder-to-reach residents.

She said data from the Medicaid system – with more than half the state population enrolled – can also help guide efforts to reach people less likely to pursue a vaccine on their own.

Medicaid information, Lujan Grisham said, can be used to alert doctors to which of their patients haven’t yet received the vaccine or to offer incentives that encourage patients to get the shot.

“I think the equity numbers can improve,” she told Biden on Tuesday.

Church to serve

The state still faces challenges in reaching everyone.

Cooper, the bishop at New Hope in Albuquerque, said he pushed without success for the church to serve as a vaccination site earlier in the year.

Faster intervention at the church, he said, would have better served the state by mixing people eager to get a vaccine and with those who were more reluctant, creating momentum.

But Cooper said he is eager to help now, too.

The vaccine has been a topic of discussion at church functions – conducted online, until recently – and he has made it clear where he stands. He estimated that at least 75% of the membership is already vaccinated.

“There are more people of color who are involved in the science of producing the vaccines and approving the vaccines,” Cooper said. “That gives us a greater assurance that the vaccine is safe.”

But he said there are “vaccine deniers” among the faith community across racial lines.

With so many eager folks already having received the shot, he joked that the vaccination task is harder now, akin to asking the New England Patriots to win the Super Bowl after losing quarterback Tom Brady.

COVID-19 infections, in the meantime, continue to surface throughout the state.

New Mexico health officials reported 196 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and three recent deaths, pushing the virus-related death toll to 4,111 state residents.

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