Top health official acknowledged New Mexico's system for providing telephone-based information about the COVID-19 vaccine has left many residents confused and frustrated.
Dr. Tracie Collins, secretary-designate for the state Department of Health, said many callers who wanted to register for the vaccine were frustrated by long wait times - or in some cases, calls that weren't picked up.
"We know there is a wait," Collins said Monday (Jan. 11) in a conference call with reporters. "Friday, people had trouble getting through. Never mind how long they were waiting, there was no answer."
She said the Health Department has increased the number of people working the phone lines and will continue to do so through the week. She added the agency also is working on fixing "glitches" in its online registration system, hoping to improve the application process and ensuring those who register will get a reminder about their booster shots - which should be done three to four weeks after the initial shot.
"If you are due for a second shot, a booster, you are on a priority list," she said. "If we have not reached you, please be patient - we will."
Roberto L. Ceriani of Santa Fe said his patience is in short supply after he was unable to contact anyone at the Department of Health on the telephone Thursday, Friday or Monday. He added he also called over the weekend.
"It's practically impossible to reach them," said the retired doctor and scientist. "The virus works 24 hours a day. People get sick 24 hours a day. But New Mexico [state] works whenever it wants and not on weekends."
Ceriani said he did get an email about his booster shot last week that instructed him to go to Santa Fe High School. Then he received an email saying that facility was full and could not take more people.
Ceriani, who is in his 80s, said he was still waiting late Monday afternoon to learn where to get his booster shot.
"We can accept that they have problems but we would like to know what the problems are and when things will be initiated," he said. "We want to be informed."
More than 400,000 New Mexicans - about one-fifth of the state's population - have registered online to get a vaccine for COVID-19, Collins said.
The Health Department released an updated prioritization list Friday (Jan. 8) of who is eligible to first receive the vaccines. When the vaccine first arrived in New Mexico in mid-December, frontline health care workers and those working and living in congregate care facilities were first.
In the current, second phase, people over 75, residents over 16 who are at greater risk of COVID-19 complications and frontline essential workers who cannot work from home - including educators - will be eligible to next receive the vaccine.
To date, New Mexico has received more than 170,000 doses of the two vaccines made by drug companies Pfizer and Moderna. And more than 78,000 New Mexicans have been inoculated, Collins said.
"Within the last seven days, we did more than 32,000 doses," she said.
Earlier in the day, health care officials at some of the state's largest hospitals said they were vaccinating their frontline workers as quickly as possible - more than 10,000 at University of New Mexico Hospital alone, for example, said executive physician David Pitcher.
Though health officials said they have not experienced any problems with the supply of vaccine, Collins said the state doesn't have "an overwhelming supply."
That may change with a new presidential administration, she said.
On Monday, New Mexico's Ben Ray Luján and Martin Heinrich joined 43 Senate Democrats in asking U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to immediately get a vaccination distribution plan in place for the country.
They criticized the rollout plan instituted under President Donald Trump.
"With our health system and economy in crisis, and millions of lives at stake, we cannot afford for this vaccination campaign to continue to be hindered by the lack of planning, communication and leadership we have seen so far," read a letter signed by Luján and Heinrich.
Collins said the state's plans to roll out the vaccine on a regular timeline are dependent upon more doses coming in.
"As we have more supply, we push out more vaccine," she said.
In the meantime, she said, the health department is working on compiling a list of the number of residents who fall into each of the state's four rollout categories.
Pitcher said to date the rollout of the vaccine has gone "incredibly smooth ... it gives us great hope that we will be able to serve the needs of New Mexicans as they face this ongoing pandemic crisis."
Visit vaccinenm.org or call 1-855-600-3453 to register for the coronavirus vaccine.