New Mexico opened up a new phase in its rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine on Friday and, on Tuesday, the Trump administration announced it will begin speeding up distribution of available doses. KUNM’s Nash Jones spoke with Matt Bieber, Communications Director for the Department of Health, about the state’s strategies for getting more shots into more arms, and how the process works.
MATT BIEBER: New Mexicans register at vaccinenm.org. They provide their employment information, their health conditions and some other information. And at that point, all they've got to do is wait to be contacted. That usually takes the form of a text message, but we've got other methods as well. They log into the website, and they'll see a list of choices of local providers, and they can choose where they want to go. That could be a small local pharmacy, it could be a bigger venue like Expo [New Mexico] or The Pit. The only other thing they would need to do is fill out a medical questionnaire on the day of the appointment within the website, because it's important for our providers to know the health status of people on that day.
KUNM: The portal asks for, as you mentioned, some personal, medical and employment information. For residents who might be concerned about privacy, who's this information shared with?
BIEBER: The only people who see the information you provide are the small number of people in the state government who are designated for this purpose, and then your provider. That's it.
KUNM: Your office opened up availability to Phase 1B, which prioritizes those 75 and older, followed by those 16 years and older with certain chronic conditions, frontline essential workers and those in congregate facilities. If someone is in this phase, but hasn't been contacted to book their appointment yet, what should they do?
BIEBER: They should wait. Phase 1B is a significant chunk of New Mexico. The second sub phase, the one with health conditions for folks over 16, that's more than a half a million people. That's about a quarter of our population in that sub fees alone. Now, right now, we're receiving somewhere on the order of 20,000 to 40,000 vaccination doses from the federal government per week. As you can see, it's going to take us a little while to get through phase 1B just to make the math work.
KUNM: So, the Trump administration has been holding back doses to be used for a second shot. However, they announced Tuesday that they plan to release nearly all available vaccines to states, which the Biden team had said that they would do too. What is the health department's thoughts on this strategy?
BIEBER: We've built a provider network and a distribution system based on the cadence of vaccine that we're receiving. If all of a sudden a drastically larger number of doses is made available to us, on one hand, obviously we'll accept them because our goal is to get vaccine to everyone who needs it as fast as we can. On the other hand, that's going to mean some operational changes. And we have teams that are thinking about exactly how to do that well.
KUNM: One concern about releasing all available vaccine is that it'll be used for first doses, and then there won't be sufficient supply available when people are ready for their booster shot.
BIEBER: We're keen to ensure that if we're promising first doses to people, they're going to get their second dose as well. And one of the changes we've recently made to the registration website allows providers to reserve a percentage of their vaccination appointments for second shots.
KUNM: And so the appointment will be reserved for them, but is there a concern that there wouldn't be a vaccine dose available when that appointment comes up for that person?
BIEBER: If we keep going at this pace, we're confident that we can continue vaccinating in a steady way across the state. But we're absolutely keeping our eye on that larger picture of 'how reliable is the larger supply over time?' And 'what can we do to make sure that we're mitigating risk for New Mexicans while ensuring that all the doses we do have get out in a timely way?'
KUNM: How does the state determine how many doses to distribute to the various sites? And are there any challenges in ensuring equitable availability in rural New Mexico, specifically?
BIEBER: We want to get vaccine to population centers roughly in proportion to the number of people there, but there's some other factors as well. One is provider capacity in a given area. Another is the capacity for long term ultra-low temperature storage; not every place around the state has an equal number of those freezers. We are very conscious that access and equity are key issues in a state as diverse as ours. Right now, we have a team of people who are working on developing operational plans to register and get vaccine to people that are a little bit harder to reach: homebound seniors, the homeless population, people cycling in and out of prison. It's equally important to get vaccine to every single New Mexican who wants it and we're working on it very hard.