Those seeking new omicron boosters left to fend for themselves safety-wise

Venturing into pharmacies where masking rules are patchy is a risky proposition for many

By: - September 8, 2022 4:30 am

Without universal masking at vaccination sites, people seeking the newly developed omicron-specific boosters for themselves or their families have to figure out where it is safe to get the shot. (Photo by Emily Elconin / Getty Images)

New Mexicans started getting the new omicron-specific coronavirus vaccine on Wednesday but were left to figure out on their own how they will safely get the shot.

The CDC and state governors around the country this year rolled back public health protections, including indoor mask mandates for essential services and business that advocates say would provide safety, freedom and autonomy to immunocompromised and medically vulnerable people.

The Biden administration is pitching the new bivalent COVID-19 booster shots as an upgraded version of the previous ones, and said the country’s on track for people to only need one per year.

But as of Wednesday, there was no scientific evidence that these newly developed boosters offer any more protection from infection, transmission or serious illness than the older versions of the shot.

And the administration is setting expectations for high-risk people to have to get boosted more than once per year. But that could mean more risky settings more frequently for people who could sustain the most damage from the illness.

Carol Ezell is a retired accountant living with Type 1 Diabetes in Las Cruces. She called Mesilla Valley Pharmacy on Tuesday morning hoping to get the new shot.

They didn’t have the new boosters yet, she said, but they did agree to have an employee wear a mask while administering it curbside, rather than requiring her to go inside the building.

Ezell said it doesn’t make sense for the government to tell people to get their shot in settings where they can be exposed to COVID.

“For people like us, that’s the biggest risk that we will have taken in months,” Ezell said. “I believe we should have masking required at all points of health care service.”

A vax-only approach leaves the most vulnerable behind

That, along with a central place to find out which health care providers require masking, would be the least that the government could do, Ezell said.

However, neither of two of the largest pharmacy retail store chains in New Mexico require customers and patients to wear masks when they come in for a vaccine or other care.

When asked how medically vulnerable people could safely visit one of their stores without masking requirements, spokespeople for both CVS and Walgreens pointed to boilerplate news releases they published on Sept. 2, neither of which say anything about preventing infection during vaccination appointments.

When pressed, a CVS spokesperson said pharmacists, interns, technicians, family nurse practitioners, physician associates and nurses are required to wear masks during immunizations.

“For patients and customers, we comply with all local and state mandates as it relates to masking,” the spokesperson said.

CVS refused to answer a question about which mandates they were referring to. There are no state or local mask mandates in New Mexico, and very few local mandates anywhere in the U.S.

The Walgreens spokesperson said when a patient checks into an appointment, pharmacy workers will take their temperature and screen for the presence of symptoms or illness prior to giving them the shot.

The company requires workers administering the shots to wear disposable face masks and face shields, and wear gloves during immunization, but its response does not mention masking requirements for patients and customers.

Meanwhile on social media, complete strangers were sharing anecdotes about where they could safely get the shot for themselves and their loved ones. One poster said the private Ribera Healthcare Clinic on Albuquerque’s Westside requires masks, while another said everyone was wearing one at the Walgreens on Fourth St. and Griegos Rd.

Anna Reser, a historian in Albuquerque, got her omicron booster on Wednesday morning at the Walgreens at 12th St. and I-40.

“The person who checked me in and did my shot was wearing a mask, but no one else I saw in the pharmacy was, and most customers were not,” she said. “The person who gave me the shot put on gloves and a face shield over her existing surgical mask before we went in the little patient room.”

There was no additional air ventilation and no air filtration devices anywhere in sight at the store, she said.

Back down in Las Cruces, Jaye Williams said she will likely wait until November to get another booster. As far as Williams can tell, the new boosters will probably give the most protection about three months after she gets the shot, so she will wait so that she can take the risk of seeing her family for the 2022 holiday season. 

She said she hasn’t read anything that shows these new boosters will last longer than the old ones.

“They don’t know,” she said. “So I’m taking the layman’s guess that it’s basically sort of the same.”

Mesilla Valley Pharmacy called Ezell back on Wednesday morning to tell her they ordered some bivalent boosters, but don’t expect them in until late next week or early the week after that.

So Ezell, too, is waiting.

“That’s the only place I’m considering going right now,” she said, “because it’s the only place I know will do curbside.”


Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.

Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.