Boosters are coming soon to N.M., but some vaccine distrust lingers

By: - September 2, 2021 5:38 am

Tanya Lattin, commander at the Corrales Fire Department, gives an N.M. resident his first dose of the vaccine in August 2021. (Shelby Kleinhans / Source NM)

Sandra Jean Taylor, a lactation consultant with a bachelor’s degree in nutritional science, has already scheduled her COVID-19 booster shot. 

She also found a Moderna vaccine trial for 7- and 11-year-old children and signed up her two children.

“I am volunteering them for science,” Taylor said she told the recruitment team. “I feel 100% comfortable with the concept of this vaccine.”

Taylor’s two daughters understood that they would need to get injections and have their blood drawn but it was worth it to them, she said. Her children wanted to participate because they felt it would help make it possible to go back to school with their friends, she said. “That’s how they understood it. They were like ‘So, we do this trial and it means other kids can get vaccines and school can be normal again.’ ”

The Pfizer vaccine was fully approved Aug. 23 by the Food and Drug Administration. So far, the FDA has only authorized boosters for those with compromised immune systems but boosters for adults are expected to be available by Sept. 20, following FDA review. 

Immunocompromised people can already get the Pfizer booster shots in New Mexico. Starting Sept. 20, priority will be given to the elderly and health care providers, according to the state’s Department of Health.

DOH’s public calendar lists events with a specified number of primary and booster vaccines available.

People self-report that they are immunocompromised to sign up for booster vaccinations at vaccineNM.org, said David Morgan, spokesperson for DOH. Both phases of shots — primary and booster — are also available at retail pharmacies, public vaccination events and through medical providers. 

As the delta variant gains traction, breakthrough cases increase and a growing body of research suggests that protection from the vaccines wanes over time, many like Taylor are eager to get booster shots and do whatever they can to stop the spread of the coronavirus. But while the state has higher vaccination rates than the country as a whole, with 67.7% completing the series, there are still many others who are vaccine hesitant, and the state has yet to achieve herd immunity.

Dr. Richard Larson is a founder of TriCore, the in-state lab that runs tests for COVID-19. He’s also the executive vice chancellor of the UNM Health Sciences Center. He says, “From a public health standpoint, it makes sense to get people vaccinated.”

And that includes making sure they get booster shots, too, he said.

Larson told state lawmakers that administering booster shots to everyone is less expensive than testing antibody levels and also costs less than prescribing boosters based on individual need. 

“The antibody test is not very good — there are a lot of false positives and false negatives, and they’re very expensive,” Larson said during a Legislative Health and Human Services committee hearing on Aug. 19. “You could give many, many, many vaccines for the cost of one antibody test.”

Taylor said having her entire family vaccinated protects her patients, many of whom have newborns and are even more vulnerable.

“Getting vaccinated protects the families I go to see. It means that my family is at lower risk for everybody’s sake,” she said. “It also means that I am not going to accidentally bring something home.”.

Since early summer, the U.S, has had an ever-growing surplus of vaccines as a result of lagging demand, according to  The New York Times

“They are sitting in these freezers,” Taylor said. “I don’t feel like I am taking it from anybody else, because those that want to get it can now start scheduling.”

Though other states are struggling to administer vaccines before they expire, the New Mexico Department of Health is not experiencing that at the same rate. “The vast majority of vaccine supply since December has not gone to waste,” said David Morgan with DOH. 

Distrust lingers

Still for some, trust in the government and the efficacy of the vaccine are barriers for even an initial dose.

Nkazi Sinandile is a nurse who works with refugees, immigrants and asylum-seekers through the nonprofit NM Women’s Global Pathways, a program of the Immigrant and Refugee Resource Village of Albuquerque. She said she’s still working to get her community their initial vaccines. 

Sinandile said the best way to increase vaccination rates among immigrants is for vaccination teams to work with trusted community members going door-to-door. Mobility and outreach are key components, Sinandile said, especially teams that include interpreters who can visit with people, give the vaccines and explain they’re safe

Despite her medical training, Sinandile said initially she, too, was hesitant about the vaccine, and feeling distrustful about possible side-effects.

“At first, I didn’t want to take the vaccination, even though I’m a nurse. But from my perspective right now, I am so glad that I took it,” Sinandile said. “I didn’t want my husband to say, ‘My wife died because she didn’t take the vaccine.’ ”

In the U.S.

  • More than 72% of Americans aged 18 and older have received at least one vaccine dose
  • Nearly 62% of adults are fully vaccinated

In the state

  • New Mexico reports a higher vaccination rate with 77.6% of adults having received at least one dose
  • 67.7% of New Mexicans completed the series

— Data comes from the CDC

Others in the medical field, however, have strong feelings about not taking the vaccine. Leslie Bueter, a registered nurse at UNM Hospital who works with COVID patients, is not vaccinated. Bueter attended the health care worker protest against mandatory vaccinations on Friday, Aug. 20.

She said she did not want to comply with the state mandate that health care workers be vaccinated. “I don’t want to have to be forced to potentially put my life at risk,” she said. “I don’t want to be forced to take an experimental medication which is proving to be less and less effective daily.”

None of the vaccines are experimental, and none have skipped trial stages.

ICU beds across the state are overcapacity, and people who are unvaccinated make up 88% percent of hospitalizations and 85% of deaths in the last month, according to the state. The Department of Health and Human Services Secretary David Scrase also announced last week that hospitals may be forced to begin rationing care, should things get worse.

Still, Beuter said she believes her natural immunity is enough to protect her. “I have worked faithfully and consistently through all of this COVID thing. Apparently — since I have never had it — my personal health regime has been OK,” she said. “I have been around sick people. I trust the immune system that God gave me.” 

Beuter said she is being treated as an outcast for questioning medical advice. “We are being discriminated against because we have a difference of opinion,” she said.

But Dr. Larson, with UNM Health Sciences Centers, said the mask mandates for health care workers are needed.

“If you’re unvaccinated, you are a risk to immuno-suppressed individuals who can’t respond to a vaccine who want it,” he said. “There are plenty of examples of people who are immuno-suppressed who get COVID from an unvaccinated person and suffer the worst possible consequence. I am, in the strongest way, a proponent of mandatory vaccines. I understand all the legal consequences of that, but I don’t see how you could stand on any other footing.”

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Lissa Knudsen
Lissa Knudsen

Lissa Knudsen was the news editor at the New Mexico Daily Lobo, following a stint as the publication’s public health beat reporter. She also worked as a data analyst for local NPR affiliate KUNM News. Her areas of coverage include politics and policy with an emphasis on racial and gender equity. Knudsen holds a bachelor's degree in health science and a master's degree in program planning and health education. She’s a critical cultural communication doctoral candidate, emphasizing reproductive justice, maternity and health. She is a board member of the New Mexico Public Health Association. Before she realized she was supposed to be a journalist, Knudsen was involved in local politics up until mid-2014, getting into hot water with her bosses as she pushed for transparency and public accountability.

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