It’s unclear whether vaccines are reaching hardest hit New Mexico communities

As New Mexico continues to amp up vaccine distribution, health officials don’t appear to be allocating a greater number of doses to those living in low-income areas that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. Those areas include McKinley County, the southern border region, and communities in central New Mexico where some of the highest rates of positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths have occurred. 

Other than some targeted distribution to congregant facilities like nursing homes and prisons, as well as health care and medical workers, the state is taking an approach of calling up individuals who’ve registered on the state vaccine portal. People are prioritized based on various risk categories, such as age, underlying conditions, or being an essential worker. “…basically we’re randomizing them to see who will receive that vaccine dose,” New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said at a Wednesday afternoon press conference. It’s an approach designed to ensure there is no favoritism in vaccine access, Collins said. 

But the hardest hit populations are low income communities that are disproportionately Native American and Latino, Black and other communities of color, and there is currently no publicly available information about whether or not vaccine distribution is sufficiently reaching these groups.

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The coronavirus feels the way it looks in widely circulated images, said Cleo Otero: like a thorn. “That’s how it felt inside my body, especially my lungs. It was painful. Like it was scratching the inside of your body. I could really literally feel the virus inside my body.” 

Otero’s first clue she was sick came at the laundromat in Albuquerque where she usually buys a bag of spicy chips as she waits on her clothes.

Images show reality in El Paso that must be seen

Workers and guards outside an El Paso mobile morgue during the COVID-19 pandemic. Claudia Silva/New Mexico In Depth

It felt surreal pulling into the cemetery next to the University Medical Center of El Paso. Large trailers with doors flung wide open are lined up outside the medical examiner’s office tucked away just down the street. The trailers house rows of shelves holding the overflow of those who have died of COVID-19. As Texas has reached over 1 million cases, the border city of El Paso has become a hot-spot, some calling it the new New York, with one of every 20 to 30 people estimated to be positive. 

As the situation has worsened the city’s prisoners have been asked to help handle the dead.

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This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Get their investigations emailed to you directly by signing up at revealnews.org/newsletter. Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, was frustrated. She was getting reports the first week of May of horrifying conditions at the Otero County Processing Center, one of three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in the state. Detainees were responsible for disinfecting their own living spaces but weren’t getting adequate cleaning supplies.

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It’s late in the evening when I’m able to reach Yasmin Cervantes. She tells me she’s feeling nervous because she’s never done an interview before. We both chuckle. I reassure her that we’re just having a conversation about her experience. She chuckles again and begins to tell me about her day.