Editorial: We need a shot surge

As the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to produce hundreds of new cases a day in New Mexico with hospitals near capacity, it is difficult for many to comprehend there is a significant and persistent level of vaccine hesitancy. After all, the data is so overwhelming that if vaccinated you are far less likely to get COVID-19 and even less likely to become seriously ill.

But that hesitancy – or in some cases resistance – is real, and it is illustrated by a couple of headlines in the past week.

First, despite having one of the highest overall vaccination rates in the nation, just 46.4% of New Mexicans ages 18 to 24 were fully vaccinated as of Monday, trailing the statewide average by more than 20 percentage points. New Mexicans in that age group – a demographic that is out and about and working in retail and restaurant jobs – also trailed their peers nationally, who are vaccinated at a rate of 48.3%

Headline Number Two: Despite the governor’s edict that state employees must either be vaccinated or take regular COVID tests and wear masks, only 57% of New Mexico State Police officers were fully vaccinated as of the last week in August. That’s well below the statewide rate of 69% for New Mexicans 18 and older. State Police Chief Tim Johnson acknowledged some reluctance among officers, despite the agency’s attempt to provide them with accurate information about the vaccine. And these officers have been on the front lines when it comes to enforcing public health orders during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, young people aren’t the only major demographic area of concern. Hispanic/Latinos and Blacks still lag far behind non-Hispanic whites in first dose administered and vaccination series completed. The percentage of Blacks fully vaccinated was still below 50% (48.8%) Monday while Hispanics/Latinos were at 52.2% according to the DOH COVID Vaccine Dashboard.

And despite the state’s excellent overall track record, combined state and federal data showed somewhere in the neighborhood of 500,000 New Mexicans ages 18 and older still weren’t fully vaccinated as of Sept. 13, although in a promising development, about 160,000 of them had received at least one dose. That leaves way too many people in that category who are vulnerable to COVID-19 and more likely to infect others if they get it.

Dropping down to the next tier, only about half of New Mexicans ages 12 to 17 had completed the vaccination series, and children under 12 are not yet eligible. Those numbers leave a lot of fertile ground for the highly contagious delta variant.

Reasons given for not getting vaccinated vary. A 50-state survey this month by QuoteWizard found that in New Mexico 50% of those unvaccinated said they were concerned about possible side effects, 21% didn’t think they needed the vaccine, 38% had a wait-and-see-if-it’s-safe attitude, 51% didn’t trust the vaccine, 46% didn’t trust the government and 32% didn’t think COVID-19 was a big threat.

Much of the hesitancy can be traced to debunked claims like DNA, magnetic and fertility concerns – yet these are some of the folks who would be willing to treat themselves with an anti-parasite drug sold at veterinary supply stores rather than take a rigorously vetted vaccine? That drug, invermectin, had hospitals in some states and poison control centers slammed with people who had taken it.

Are there possible side effects to the approved vaccines? Yes. But those are minuscule when you consider COVID-19 has claimed the lives of nearly 4,600 New Mexicans. Invermectin is a whole lot more dangerous.

With short-staffed hospitals struggling to care for the surge of COVID patients, and doctors, hospitals and nurses working to care for people with all the other maladies that afflict humans – from heart attacks to cancer to worn-out joints – it’s in everyone’s interest to do what we can to encourage, or when appropriate, mandate vaccinations. That’s especially true for the state, which would be well advised to renew its just-expired $100 incentive for people getting either a first or second shot.

Science has taught us a great deal about the virus, and marketing and surveys have taught us a lot about the resistance. The past state campaigns have been effective, but when it comes to young people a University of New Mexico Center for Social Policy report concluded “targeted outreach to this specific sub-group” will be needed given their higher rates of vaccine hesitancy. Greg Romero, president of the Associated Students of the University of New Mexico, said he got the shot but some of his peers just haven’t been motivated to act quickly. “They just don’t see an urgent need at this moment to get it,” he said. (UNM requires all “faculty, staff and students who access campus facilities, housing, programs, services, and activities to provide documentation of full vaccination for COVID-19 or documentation of a UNM validated limited exemption no later than Sept. 30.”)

The governor should address the State Police issue. These officers are role models – along with many professional athletes who have taken a social responsibility “dive” on this issue.

And it’s time to roll out a targeted new effort aimed at vaccine-hesitant young people in New Mexico. Because in the words of state DOH spokesman David Morgan, “being young is not the same thing as being immortal.”

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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