Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Village of Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon, center, helps residents sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations. Gabaldon said his primary concern is people who only have landlines falling through the cracks if they can’t be reached for a vaccine appointment.

LOS LUNAS — Hours before the vaccine registration event began, people were lined up in the cold outside the Daniel Fernandez Recreation Center in Los Lunas.

“People were there nearly two hours before we got started. The parks and recreation assistants jumped in right away and started helping people,” said Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon.

Last Saturday, more than 60 people came to the center to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine through the New Mexico Department of Health’s online registration system — vaccinenm.org.

Concerned many people in the county, especially senior citizens, didn’t have reliable internet access at home, Gabaldon and Jason Duran, director of the village parks and recreation department, teamed up to hold the event.

“Mostly people came due to a lack of internet access at home,” Gabaldon said. “Some was a lack of confidence they were doing it correctly and they wanted to make sure their registration was complete.”

Maria and Alfredo Garcia, of Los Chavez, went to the registration event because Maria was becoming anxious, Alfredo said.

“I can get mine through the VA but she can’t,” Alfredo said. “She was getting anxious so we wanted to make sure the registration was complete.”

Larry and Kay Griffin, also of Los Chavez, don’t have internet service at home but were able to complete their registrations on her smartphone.

“I wasn’t confident I’d done it correctly on my phone, so we came to check,” Kay said.

Parks and recreation aid Jaidyn Schollander was glad to help with the event.

“I have a lot of elderly people in my life and a lot of them don’t have internet and no one to help them,” she said.

Gabaldon said everyone who went to the event understood they were there to sign up for the vaccine and wouldn’t be getting a shot that day, but there was a lot of confusion about the confirmation code versus the event code.

After someone registers online for the vaccine, they will receive a confirmation code that lets them know they have a profile on the website, and lets them view and edit their profile. An event code is sent when there is a vaccine clinic happening in the person’s vicinity that they can make an appointment for.

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Marcos Castillo, village of Los Lunas recreation supervisor, left, helps Ray Lucero, right, complete his online registration for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Valencia County Emergency Manager Sarah Gillen said people should have their own, individual email accounts when they register.

“We’ve seen where some individuals have been kicked out of the system if they use the same email or phone number as someone else,” Gillen said.

Gabaldon said the website is fairly straight forward to use, but he is concerned people who don’t have email addresses or cell phones are falling through the cracks.

“Most of those people are our elderly, who are a priority, but in some cases they don’t even have voicemail or an answering machine. If they aren’t standing there next to the phone when the call comes, they aren’t going to get an appointment,” he said.

Matt Bieber, communications director for the NMDOH, said the department has alternative means of connecting with people who don’t have email or a cellphone but didn’t clarify what those were.

As of Monday, Feb. 1, the NMDOH’s new vaccine website — cvvaccine.nmhealth.org/public-dashboard.html — shows there have been 4,403 first and second vaccines given in Valencia County.

Two of them were to Jan Pacifico and her husband, George Ridgeway, who live in Tomé. They received the vaccine on Jan. 20. Pacifico said she has a number of health issues that put her at high risk, including lung issues and being a cancer survivor.

“We both have health issues and are over 75. I honestly feel like if I got COVID, given my problems with my lungs, I would die,” Pacifico said. “It seemed like the risks (of the vaccine) weren’t anywhere near as dangerous as if I caught it.”

 

Both registered on the DOH website but heard through the grapevine that Presbyterian was giving the vaccines. She received a link to the provider’s event and they made appointments. Shortly after, she and Ridgeway found out the event was supposed to be for Presbyterian employees only.

“They honored anyone who had gotten an appointment accidentally. We decided to keep the appointments since we were in the group that should get it anyway,” she said.

The day after getting the shot, Pacifico said her arm was extremely sore, “to the point where you didn’t want to lift your arm sore. I was a little tired and had some chills that day.

“We were told the second shot is worse because your body has already started to build immunity from the first shot and it fights. I have a friend who had a 101 fever and spent the day in bed, and another who had no reaction at all. It just varies so much, but I’m willing to do this.”

Former Valencia County Commissioner Alicia Aguilar also received her first vaccine in late January. As the primary caregiver for her husband, a cancer survivor, as well as having underlying health conditions, Aguilar said she felt getting the vaccine was the best decision.

“I did a lot of research. It’s not a matter of belief or faith or politics,” Aguilar said. “This thing has come to Valencia County and you don’t have to go very far to see how many people it has effected and how many have died. I have to do my part and start in my own family.”

After registering for the vaccine, Aguilar got a call from Presbyterian saying there were several unused vaccines available. The couple decided Aguilar would go first, and she received her first dose on Jan. 27.

“When I walked out, I thought it was a breeze. The next morning, I couldn’t move my arm,” she said with a chuckle. “I felt a little run down but the following day, I was good.”

Last week, Bieber told the Albuquerque Journal there are a range of variables that affect vaccine distribution, including population, local health care provider capacity, cold storage capacity (for the vaccine) and more.

“In any operation this complex, some variation should be expected — but the DOH operations team is examining the data closely and will use them to ensure that vaccine distribution occurs equitably,” Bieber was quoted in the Jan. 29 Journal article.

Once registered at vaccinenm.org, individuals are selected at random to receive an event code to book an appointment. Bieber said how many people are chosen for each event depends of the number of vaccines available.

“Generally, we try to fill the slots first from 1A, then 75-plus, then from New Mexicans with qualifying health conditions,” Bieber told the News-Bulletin via email on Monday. The decision of when an event will be held varies widely across providers, he added.

The new vaccine dashboard also provides a map of vaccine providers, with locations marked by a green and blue pins. The legend indicates the green dots are providers offering vaccine scheduling opportunities through vaccinenm.org, while those with blue dots are simply “other vaccine providers.”

When asked what the difference was between the two types of locations and how the public could use the map to make an appointment for a vaccine, Bieber replied, “We encourage all New Mexicans to register at vaccinenm.org.”

On Monday, the state adopted the CDC guidance on COVID-19 booster doses and expanded the time window for administering the second dose. Previously, providers tried to give the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine 21 days after the first and the second Moderna dose 28 days after.

New guidance from the CDC allows the second dose to be pushed out up to 42 days later, if sticking to the initial time frame isn’t feasible.

Bieber said there are built-in safeguards that ensure booster shot appointments are set aside for people, with proactive notifications for those appointments.

On the state’s new vaccine dashboard, the doses administered per 100 people is calculated on the total population of a county, not the population eligible for the vaccine.

Gillen said the county has given 100 percent of the vaccines it’s received, but the supply isn’t keeping up with the demand — last week, 900 doses were requested and 300 were received.

“We’re not withholding anything. Unfortunately, Valencia County is part of the Albuquerque metro area and distribution is going to be population based. However, while Bernalillo County has done more than 110,000 vaccinations that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface,” Gillen said.

“We are doing what we can with what we are given. I apologize to the community. We are only doing what we can,” Gillen said. “I wish we could have 77,000 vaccines to administer over a month’s period, but that isn’t going to happen.”

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.