Vaccination plan clearly spelled out by state

Moderna's COVID-19 vaccine arrived at Taos Living Center Jan. 4.

What happens in Vegas, the slogan goes, stays in Vegas. What happens in Taos is often a mystery even in Taos.

Vaccines effective in preventing COVID-19 are, thankfully, becoming available. They offer hope of ending this dreadful pandemic. But quantities are as yet extremely limited. Vaccines must be rationed for at least the next several months. The New Mexico Department of Health announced very clear priorities for the order in which people should receive a vaccine. The groups initially eligible are, in order (without going into fine detail): first, healthcare personnel and nursing-home residents; second, persons 75 and older; third, other adults at risk of COVID complications (for example, individuals with diabetes, cancer or kidney disease); fourth, essential workers unable to work remotely, such as K-12 teachers/staff and grocery-store workers. The Department of Health has rolled out an app where people can register to get a vaccination appointment when they become eligible.

I'm no public health expert. I can't judge whether these priorities are right. But the Department of Health has followed the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control. It has also (I infer from its website) looked at what other state health departments are doing.

The department has also been admirably transparent in communicating with New Mexicans. All of the above information is very clearly laid out on the department's website. There is no ambiguity about the order of vaccination and never has been, from the day the first shipment of vaccine arrived in New Mexico. I read the PDF explaining vaccination priority on the Department of Health website back in December.

Today, according to the department, we have reached the stage where adults at risk of complications can receive a vaccine. When enough vaccine arrives to cover that group, we can move to essential workers, such as teachers -- but there isn't enough vaccine for them yet. The Department of Health is very clear about this. Go to the website: cv.nmhealth.org/covid-vaccine/

Now to Taos. As I understand the situation, here only Holy Cross Medical Center has freezers capable of safely storing the vaccines. Thus, Holy Cross has become the distributor of vaccines for the Taos region. Recently teachers in Taos County were offered vaccination against COVID. Those who wanted it got their shots at an efficiently and safely run event at Taos Middle School. (We have to wait and see if these vaccinations will lead to opening school buildings soon. The Taos school board in the past has worried that children might get infected at school and carry COVID home to elderly grandparents.) Albuquerque was also getting ready to vaccinate its teachers, but put the plans on hold. Evidently someone there read the Department of Health's rules.

Since I advocate transparency, let me be clear about my personal biases. I moved to Taos long after my kids finished school. I have no connection with schools here. (My wife does, as a volunteer.) But I've been involved in education all my life. I think it's essential to get children back into classrooms as soon as possible. Both their educational progress and mental health are at risk. I applaud the teachers who stepped up and got their shots. If it were up to me, teachers would be the first group to get vaccinated after health care workers.

But it isn't up to me, and it shouldn't be up to Holy Cross either.

If every locality feels free to ignore the Department of Health's rules and decide on its own priorities, we descend into vaccine chaos. The Health Department's registration system falls apart. We have no idea who is next in line, because the order may differ county by county.

In this situation the buck stops with Bill Patten, CEO of Holy Cross. The sequence of events and the individuals involved are a mystery to me. But obviously someone at Holy Cross provided vaccine for our teachers. That well-intentioned person (persons?) either didn't read the Health Department's clear rules or chose to ignore them. I think Patten owes the community some answers. First, why did Holy Cross go rogue in this case? Second, does Holy Cross intend to follow the Department of Health guidelines in the future? If so, what safeguards are in place to make sure that this actually happens?

Jim Turner lives in El Prado.

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