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Vaccine Town Halls Emphasize Equity During Public Health Week

Shelley Mann-Lev
New Mexico Public Health Association President Shelley Mann-Lev takes a selfie during her COVID-19 vaccination.

The first week of April is National Public Health Week – a time set aside to recognize recent successes of public health workers and a time for them to reevaluate their communities’ most dire needs. The New Mexico Public Health Association had several policy wins in the last legislative session, like the repeal of old abortion restrictions, the passage of the End-Of-Life Options Act for the terminally ill, and the creation of a new state public health task force.KUNM asked the Public Health Association President Shelley Mann-Lev if any issue can take the spotlight from COVID-19 right now.

SHELLEY MANN-LEV: So whether it's good nutrition, whether it's water, whether it's broadband access, right, now digital access has become one of the social determinants of health, or the services that are in place to deal with public health emergencies like pandemics. When they're working and when things are not emergencies, we don't notice them. This year we've noticed them because dealing both with COVID-19, this worldwide tragic pandemic which has been much worse in our country because we did not pay attention to public health and we had lost so much of our public health infrastructure, particularly over the last four years, but really it's been over the last 10 years or so here in the state of New Mexico. We missed it. And we are missing it and having to rebuild and we hope that this week is really an opportunity to focus our lens to bring it into greater clarity.

KUNM: Many, or, all of the issues that the Public Health Association is working on are issues of equity.

MANN-LEV: Absolutely. We requested that the Department of Health host a town hall specifically on vaccine equity. So this town hall will be held on the NMDOH Facebook page, it's a Facebook Live event. We've been collecting questions. For example, this morning, one of the questions that somebody just sent to me that we sent on to the Department of Health is, "when is New Mexico going to start making a significant effort to vaccinate people who are in prisons and jails?" Decarceration is another public health issue. Around COVID we have seen, and I think everyone has seen, the disparity is just glaring. COVID has not hit every community equally, even though it has hit every community. Our communities here in New Mexico, you know, early on the Navajo Nation and McKinley County was hit so, so strongly, and a number of pueblos as well. Our African American community, our Latin-x Hispanic community has been hit harder in terms of absolute percentage of cases but also hospitalizations and deaths. The other vaccine equity townhall is cosponsored by Somos Un Pueblo Unido. It will be in Spanish. I've been told by the Health Equity Office director that there'll be a town hall in Vietnamese held as well.

KUNM: I don't think there's any surprise that a lot of groups have vaccine hesitancy because of, you know, historical trauma, or just past events that could create maybe legitimate suspicions about, you know, new medical treatments. Why didn't they roll out these town halls and education events sooner?

MANN-LEV: So equity has been a concern for the Department of Health from the beginning. At the same time, our department really made a commitment to do everything they could to get shots in arms, but I've got to say now the focus is on equity. One of the things for example they're doing is they're setting up a mobile access system for the African-American community members taking the vaccine. Because while vaccine hesitancy and mistrust, for good reasons, right, is there, vaccine access is also an issue. So we need to work from many, many different perspectives and do I wish there had been more effort sooner? Yes. It's a huge challenge around efficiency. Do you get, you know, fast? Because efficiency doesn't always mean equity. I think that tension has existed and we need to really, all of us together, push, support the equity efforts so that we make sure the communities that have been most impacted, get the most resources. You know, none of us can do at all. And I think that is taking us back to National Public Health Week. You know it's only by working together with our local health councils, our county, our state, and investing in the people, our community based organizations, that we're really going to see progress. And New Mexico has got a lot of progress to make. You know, we have tremendous strengths, but we also have many, many opportunities for positive change towards health equity.


The Facebook Live townhall discussions referenced were both held Thursday, April 8th, but are available to watch on the Facebook pages for the New Mexico Department of Health and Somos Un Pueblo Unido.

Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.
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