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Health officials address vaccine disparity rates in first bilingual COVID update

New Mexico Department of Health

State health officials announced 914 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday and 39 additional deaths, pushing our death toll to over 5,700 since the pandemic began. KUNM’s Jered Ebenreck attended the virtual briefing and talked with News Director Megan Kamerick.

JERED EBENRECK: The press conference was conducted by State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross and Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Laura Parajon. They say many unknowns still exist about the omicron variant, but the rate of transmission is clearly now higher than any other variant on record. They agreed with the CDC assessment that omicron has rapidly become the dominant strain in the U.S., 73% of the new cases, even though right now delta still remains dominant in New Mexico. They expect that to change soon.

KUNM: And are there inequities in the fully vaccinated in New Mexico and how is New Mexico Department of Health addressing this?

EBENRECK: 90.4% of whites in New Mexico five years and older are fully vaccinated, that's with two shots considered fully vaccinated, compared to just 52.5% for black New Mexicans and 48.5% for Hispanics. New Mexico Department of Health is attempting to make more available information in Spanish. They in fact conducted this press conference bilingually for the first time since the start of the pandemic. Matt Bieber, spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Health, acknowledged they'd have to take a hit for not already doing better. But they are listening to advocates and improving Spanish translation and regional distribution of materials, making better Spanish language signage at events like testing and vaccination events, and increasing the number of Spanish speakers on the hotline for COVID-19. One thing they do point out, regardless of vaccination status is that vaccination is universally effective. And they shared numbers that unvaccinated people are 10 times more likely to get infected with COVID-19 and 20 times more likely to die than those just with two shots fully vaccinated. And that disparity even increases more if you have the booster.

KUNM: What are the key things health officials want New Mexicans to do ahead of the holidays to stay safe?

EBENRECK: I know I said it before, but I'll say it again: Same as it ever was, only this time, they did take a lot of time to break down in detail the measures folk need to do, everything from the wire on the nose around the mask and making sure that is sealed to being mindful of how many people you're around at holiday gatherings. They took time to actually demonstrate -- Laura Parajon, the Deputy Secretary of Health -- how to do a nasal swab home test live. If you go and look at the video, you'll see her after about 15 or 20 minutes show her negative result. So they took time to really show people how to use tests, how to access safe behaviors through masking and social distancing. And they emphasized that the testing and the vaccination regimen remains the most crucial thing in stopping the spread. Because as Dr. Ross indicates,

DR. CHRISTINE ROSS: Unfortunately, we continue to be a sea of red here.

KUNM: We've heard the Biden administration is going to increase access to free home tests and they are working with the Biden Administration to make some of these available?

EBENRECK: They're going to roll out free at home tests for 20,000 folk in high case rate and highest social vulnerabilities zip codes as part of a pilot program to do the testing distribution the Biden Administration recently authorized. They are suggesting that they're going to launch this program in places like supermarkets to see if they can increase the awareness and ease of access for people needing testing.

KUNM: And did they say anything about our hospitals still being overwhelmed?

EBENRECK: Hospitalizations are still too high. They beg us to please do the preventive care and reduce the risk such that we don't end up needing a visit to the emergency room or an ICU unit. It's due to COVID-19 cases and also people following up on long delayed care. But nonetheless, there is no room at the inn, so to speak, if you need it in an emergency.

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Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.