State leaders in New Mexico and Alaska credit their high inoculation rates to the centralization of their public health systems.
The existence of an already operational public health framework with logistical infrastructure meant that Alaska did not undergo the same Herculean effort that some states have confronted.
Alaska has long had to maintain a top-down model in public health because of the logistical hurdles that it faces due to the lack of easy road access and environmental extremes many of its towns and villages face. The state government has also maintained a close working relationship with Indian Health Services — a federal agency that has its own allotment of shots — to vaccinate Alaska’s native communities.
Another boon: The state receives its vaccine allotment monthly, rather than weekly, from the federal government. That small difference makes it easier for officials to plan their distribution to providers and get a head start.
“This is a system that’s been set up and we’ve been running for years. This isn’t new to Covid: it’s just a well-oiled machine,” said Tessa Walker Linderman, the lead for Alaska’s Covid Vaccination Task Force. “I think just because of the unique challenges of distribution of really anything in our state, the systems have already been in place and we’re just operationalizing for Covid what we’re already doing day in and day out to get supplies, food and health care out to various parts of the state.”
New Mexico, meanwhile, had more to stand up before it had a streamlined process. The biggest difference-maker in its effort, state leaders said, was the user-friendly website New Mexico set up as well as the data-gathering practices it has implemented to support it.
The state quickly released its website, created by the development company Real Time Solutions, and encouraged New Mexicans to create a user profile on it as soon as possible — regardless of their vaccine eligibility. Users could then be notified as soon as they were able to get a vaccine, and of the nearest provider who has doses available.
The site launched in December, weeks ahead of similar efforts in states such as California.
The website is also backed up by a call center with more than 30 operators who help those who aren’t technologically savvy. Providers, meanwhile, feed in data on the back end, including whether they have doses available because of cancellations or other reasons. The system then notifies people nearby of vaccine availability. So far, more than 40 percent of New Mexico’s population has signed up.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said in an interview that data has been key in their fight to get as many people inoculated as possible and that, prior to the Biden administration, they’d had to go it alone. The Trump administration did not do enough to put these systems in place, she said.
“The Biden team is still having to figure it out,” she said. “The Trump administration set it up so poorly, if at all. Nobody ever invested in these comprehensive data systems, and for epidemiology — for real population health — you have to be able to turn that on and off or adjust it on a dime. And we’ve done that sort of by the seat of our pants, by our bootstraps, put all this stuff together.”
Dr. Tracie Collins, the New Mexico health secretary, said the state has had a “unified command structure,” including twice-a-week “office hours” for hospitals or other vaccine providers to check in with state authorities, share information and work through logistical problems.
New Mexico also benefits from having access to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, a major Department of Energy research institution that has helped the state with case modeling — a huge boon for the state, officials said.
But more than anything, providers said the effort to maintain focus on putting shots in arms, drained of politics, has helped move the state forward.
“There is a single goal, and that is to get the most people vaccinated in the shortest amount of time,” said Kate Becker, the CEO of University of New Mexico Hospitals. “Having that sort of clear objective really helped everybody just kind of circle around and say, ‘OK, we all want to get this done, we all want to get past this, so what are the things we need to do to achieve that goal?’”