This week so far more than 628,000 New Mexicans were registered to get the COVID vaccine. Just over 306,000 of those had received their first dose. State health officials say the delay in getting more people vaccinated is in their efforts to be more equitable and coordinated. But a growing number of New Mexicans are deciding not to wait, and to go to Amarillo, Texas instead. Note: Texas is currently recovering from a massive storm and power outage, and access to vaccines -- much less heat, water and electricity -- may be greatly disrupted.
Like hundreds of thousands of other New Mexicans, I signed up for the COVID vaccine as soon as I could. That was several months ago. Then I heard about a growing number of people going across state lines to Amarillo, Texas to get their vaccine sooner. What was it about their system that was allowing so many more people to get vaccinated, I decided to head to Texas myself to find out.
The drive from Santa Fe to Amarillo is just over four hours of long flat highway. When we reached the convention center, we saw a line of people forming outside the front doors, and in the cold air, I wondered how long we'd be waiting outside. But to my surprise, it was only minutes those with disabilities were shepherded to the front of the line. Currently the Amarillo health department is asking that only those in 1A and 1B categories come to the center. Once inside the door, nobody was asking for status or health details. We filled out some paperwork then shuffled toward a large room where hundreds of people were seated in socially distanced chairs. A man named Justin was to my left. He had just arrived that morning on a red eye flight from Los Angeles. At 42 he was low on the list for a vaccine despite having a serious health condition.
"I came here because a friend told me that they were offering a place to get vaccinated and that they had more openings in terms of who qualified and I qualify, I have late stage Non-Hodgkins lymphoma. I wasn't sure if I was going to get in today so I rented a room but in the event I do get a vaccine today then I'm going to head home cause I just don't want to be around anybody at this point."
Justin said that despite his health condition he wasn't able to get vaccinated in California?
"No. Right now they're limiting vaccines to frontline workers and people in long term care facilities."
On the other side of me was Tommy Tompkins who at 100 years old was lined up for a second shot. He drove up from the nearby town of Canyon to make sure COVID is not the illness that was going to take him out.
"Glad to be here. Glad to get it. Sure hope it’s effective for everybody," he said.
When I arrived at the check-in desk, I offered my paperwork to a nurse named Jackie with the Amarillo health department. She told me she had checked in dozens of people from New Mexico and even further afield.
"We've had from New York, we've had Minnesota, Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Mexico, California, Colorado, Louisiana, everywhere. They're coming from everywhere. They're literally flying in getting their shots and then going home."
I asked Jackie if people who crossed state lines would be able to get their second shot at home. Or would they have to come back?
"Nope, they can get their second shot in their area as long as they offer the same Moderna that we have now or they're welcome to come back here if need be. So either way."
The vaccine itself took only minutes, after which we were asked to spend 15 minutes in the recovery room just in case we had any adverse reactions. Jose Garcia with the Amarillo Fire Department sat at a table answering people's questions ready to respond if medically needed.
"I think the reason why a lot of people come in Amarillo, especially from the New Mexico, Oklahoma, Colorado areas is we're one of the few walk in clinics that are available that people can actually just walk in and get their vaccine without having to have an appointment. And so that's why our numbers have been through the roof right now. And the state is recognizing that and so they're allocating more doses towards us to get more people vaccinated. You do not have to have an appointment to have your vaccination as long as you meet the criteria of group 1A or 1B, then you're allowed to come in and get your shot."
Despite the seeming prudence of this process, I asked Jose why more areas weren't doing this?
"That I have no idea because I've talked to several people. They're 8, 9,10 months out before they can even get their first shot through the appointment process," he said.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services Medical Director Dr. Denise Gonzales said New Mexico has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, but they want to vaccinate the "right phase of people" first. Gonzales said that if people have the wherewithall to get vaccinated outside of the state, "we won't ask anyone not to do that... but she asked that New Mexicans be patient. "Please... wait for us to call your name."
As I walked out of the observation room, I saw Justin sitting against the wall furiously tapping away at his phone. He was buying a plane ticket back to LA for that afternoon. 'You know it's ironic,' he told me. 'I was born in Texas then left to do my undergrad in LA. Now I'm coming back home, hoping Texas can save my life.'
With their winter storm, there is surely massive disruption to delivery chains and access to electrocity. So if you decide go to Amarillo, make sure you call ahead to see if a shipment of vaccines has come in and if there is availability for either the first or second dose. The vaccines themselves are being given on a first come first served basis at the Amarillo Civic Center in the center of town. Be fully aware that if you receive your first dose in Amarillo, you may have to return to Texas for your second dose.