In the race for herd immunity, New Mexico is being heralded around the country as an unlikely frontrunner. Over half of the state’s population has gotten at least one dose of vaccine. But when it comes to some demographics hit hardest by the virus, vaccination rates are falling short. The numbers continue to highlight what the pandemic put into sharp relief—structural racism interfering with public health efforts.
There has been a stark difference in vaccination rates in New Mexico, with especially low percentages of African Americans and Hispanic people having gotten at least one shot, compared with much higher rates for white people. This was true even though nearly half of all the people who caught the virus here were Hispanic, according to the New Mexico Department of Health’s own public dashboards.
Matt Bieber, a DOH spokesperson, talked about why the vaccine wasn’t getting to some folks at the beginning of April. "We’re seeing lower registration rates for vaccine across different racial and ethnic communities. Now that’s not an effort to blame anybody, of course."
Bieber pinned the disparity on skepticism about the vaccine. "We’re very conscious that there are some historical issues that certain racial and ethnic groups are conscious of that might be creating questions or hesitancy about registration, some distrust perhaps."
That distrust has been talked about since the start of the pandemic, and even more as vaccines were being developed. So how would our public health systems head off that distrust to make sure the vaccine was getting out to the populations suffering the worst losses? Not very well at first, it turned out.
But New Mexico’s government needed only to look to neighboring systems—tribal governments and the Indian Health Service—to see vaccine rollout for potentially skeptical people going well. The rate for Native Americans in New Mexico has been consistently good. And the Navajo Nation’s rate, for instance, was far outpacing many states.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said that it was "higher than most jurisdictions throughout the country and maybe even throughout the world, and I think it’s just because we brought confidence to taking the vaccine and plus, recognized that we did get hit hard, and in order to push back on the virus, we got to get vaccinated."
He explained their outreach strategies via radio airwaves, television and internet, and regular, reliable town hall meetings all throughout the pandemic. "An informed citizen is more likely to follow science. And we have had folks on our town hall meetings like Dr. Anthony Faucci, Dr. Bourla from Pfizer."
A spokesperson at New Mexico’s DOH said via email that it’s unclear how much that effective vaccine rollout on tribal lands is boosting the overall rate in the state, the one that’s cornering so much press attention.
Months after vaccine distro began in New Mexico, that large racial gap in vaccination rates is beginning to close, mostly due to vaccination clinics in underserved communities and working with trusted neighborhood leaders, a DOH spokesperson said.
Still, there’s more to do to make it equitable. Bernadette Hardy is a co-coordinator of the International District Healthy Communities Coalition. She said it’s not just about distrust. It’s really about access. "When I did the vaccine signup in the DOH, it was kind of difficult," she said. "I have some elders who have no internet, no car. They can’t schedule it. We need to figure this out."
The IDHCC works in Southeast Albuquerque, an area that’s home to migrants and refugees, a large Native American population, many Hispanic folks and more African American people than all the neighborhoods around it.
Her co-coordinator Reynaluz Juarez said talking about the disparities in vaccination rates could help sway some folks. "I want to protect my people," she said. "All of the messaging or propaganda about staying away from the shot, those are legitimate feelings, but it’s just one more way of disenfranchising our community and keeping our community from getting what we need."
So they’re working with the Healthy Here Initiative through Presbyterian to create pop-up vaccination events where people can either call ahead or just walk up for a vaccine. Some of the pop-ups include free meals or food boxes, too.
Hardy and Juarez are also doing it by reaching out to leaders in the area, "because they’re trusted in their own communities," Hardy said. "It’s disrespectful to bypass that. You never do that in community organizing, no matter what. You ask permission."
And yes, vaccine distrust is a factor, they agreed, though it’s not because everyone’s uneducated, which seems to be how people frame that conversation.
"We’re losing people left and right," Juarez said. "That very system that we believe is responsible for killing off our communities is that system that we have to turn to for help. And so it’s a very confusing situation to be in."
They both wanted to emphasize that no one will be forced to get the vaccine at a pop-up. They’re just trying to make it easy.
Khalil Ekulona contributed to this report. Some of these full conversations aired originally in an episode of No More Normal, part of the Your New Mexico Government collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.