Hundreds of teachers back to waiting for COVID-19 vaccine after state cancels large vaccination event

Coronavirus Vaccine

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (KRQE) – Hundreds of teachers in one of the state’s largest school districts are upset and want answers after the state health department abruptly canceled a vaccination event for them set to begin on Friday.

Rio Rancho Public School’s superintendent said the district has had a positive relationship working with the DOH over the course of the pandemic. But, she called its last-minute decision to cancel the vaccination event ‘disappointing.’ The state had given permission for the vaccination event, but still, school officials were left pleading with the state Thursday morning to not cancel.

About 1,800 teachers and education staff from Rio Rancho Public Schools, Bernalillo Public Schools, ASK Academy, and SABE Charter School were set to get vaccinated Friday and Saturday. But Thursday afternoon, they learned that wouldn’t be happening.

“We had a lot of people very distraught, a lot of people crying. [A] very emotional thing for people who were prepared to go and get that vaccine tomorrow and Saturday,” Dr. Sue Cleveland, Superintendent of Rio Rancho Public Schools, said.

The schools had partnered with Sandoval County and Sandoval Regional Medical Center to vaccinate teachers and education staff as part of a training operation. It was a way for Sandoval County staff to train on how to operate a large vaccination site, like The Pit in Albuquerque, while also getting teachers and education staff vaccinated at the same time. The state gave it the green light, until Thursday afternoon.

“I think the word I use is heartbreaking,” Dr. Cleveland said. She said she learned about the cancellation Wednesday night and asked if the state would reconsider. On Thursday, school officials pleaded their case to the state, who ultimately stuck to the decision to cancel.

In a letter Thursday afternoon, Dr. Cleveland wrote a letter letting 1,800 people know their vaccine appointments were canceled. “That was a really hard letter to send out to staff this afternoon,” she said. In the letter, she said the DOH said having the vaccination site wouldn’t be fair to other districts like Albuquerque Public Schools, who told KRQE on Wednesday it also planned to vaccinate teachers this weekend before the state said no this week.

“So between those two events, we would’ve had a significant number of people who were vaccinated. That’s the ultimate goal. You know, we’re all on the same team with this. That’s all what we want to accomplish,” Dr. Cleveland said. “Hobbs has already vaccinated a great number of its teachers. So has Taos. So has Santa Fe.” She said she respectfully disagrees with the state’s decision.

In an email, the DOH told KRQE a DOH employee ‘mistakenly’ gave the district and its partners the ‘go-ahead’ to move forward with the clinic. But, it said it’s only currently vaccinating the first two subphases of Phase 1B, which are people 75 and older or those 16 and older with medical conditions.

Rio Rancho welcomed back kindergarten through fifth-graders to hybrid learning this week. The superintendent said they spent weeks planning the vaccination event.

“There are times in all organizations when you make a decision that you know you’re going to have to change it or you don’t think it’s a right decision but you should always try to go from that point forward,” Dr. Cleveland said. “In this case going back, it feels like two weeks of really hard work was disrespected.” As for the vaccines for the event, a spokesperson with the medical center said they are frozen and will not go to waste.

State lawmakers are also now getting involved. Thursday night, State Senator Craig Brandt released a letter to Secretary of the Department of Health, Dr. Tracie Collins, calling the state’s decision to cancel the vaccination event ‘irresponsible’ and ‘disastrous.’ In a Facebook Live video, he expressed how this impacts getting children back to school. In his letter, he demanded the state deliver the vaccines to those in Sandoval County.

In an emailed response to this story, a spokesperson with the Department of Health said:

“New Mexico isn’t yet vaccinating teachers or education staff. Our state is currently in the first two subphases of Phase 1B. We are vaccinating all individuals 75 years of age and older and individuals 16 or older with underlying medical conditions that place them at greater risk from COVID-19. We are not yet vaccinating frontline essential workers.

DOH could have done a better job of communicating the state’s phased vaccination plan – and we intend to. We also extend our sincere apologies to the affected communities in Sandoval County. We understand that canceling this event is frustrating and disappointing for residents – but it is also necessary to ensure that vaccine goes to those who are most exposed and vulnerable to COVID-19.

It is essential that New Mexico move through the vaccine distribution phases in sequence because doing so ensures that we protect the people who are most exposed to COVID and/or most vulnerable to its effects. That’s how we do the most good – and save the most lives – with the vaccine doses we have. That’s why we’ve been vaccinating health care workers, seniors, and New Mexicans with chronic health conditions.

DOH understands that New Mexicans are eager for vaccine – and we are eager to distribute vaccine. In fact, New Mexico is vaccinating its population faster than almost every other state – and we could distribute significantly more. The issue is supply. Like all states, we depend on the federal government for our supply of vaccines. We are asking our federal partners for more vaccine, and in the meantime, we will continue to distribute vaccines as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

New Mexico Department of Health

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