Town hall speakers urge San Juan County residents to get free COVID-19 vaccinations

Virtual meeting comes as county's COVID-19 numbers are skyrocketing

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • The 75-minute session was organized by the San Juan Regional Medical Center.
  • Hundreds of residents signed on to listen to what county leaders had to say about the situation.
  • Dr. Brad Greenberg Greenberg described the vaccine as the most important tool available to help the hospital and the county emerge from the pandemic.

FARMINGTON — Health care professionals, elected officials and law enforcement personnel from across San Juan County presented a united front during a virtual town hall meeting in encouraging residents who have not yet received the COVID-19 vaccine to strongly consider doing so.

The 75-minute session on Nov. 10, organized by the San Juan Regional Medical Center, came during an unprecedented surge in COVID-19 cases in the county. It featured presentations by hospital CEO and president Jeff Bourgeois, emergency medicine physician Dr. Brad Greenberg and chief nursing officer Suzanne Smith.

The town hall meeting also featured Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett, Farmington Police Department Chief Steve Hebbe, San Juan County Commissioner John Beckstead, San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari and Dr. Laura Parajon of the New Mexico Department of Health.

FMN Jeff Bourgeois

"We're going to ask for your support — and your help … " in battling the recent surge, Bourgeois said, addressing the hundreds of people who signed on to the virtual meeting as participants.

Hospital officials last week enacted crisis standards of care to manage their resources after more than half of all patients at the facility tested positive for the virus. Bourgeois updated the situation at the hospital as of Nov. 10, saying that of the 169 patients in the facility that day, 90 of them were COVID-19 patients.

He said San Juan County's rate of COVID-19 positivity was 125.2 cases per 100,000 residents, up from 104.5 last week. That has left the county in uncharted waters, Greenberg said.

More:San Juan County, Navajo Nation COVID-19 case updates for November 2021

"The impact of this pandemic is, right now, the most severe it's been since the beginning … ," he said.

Greenberg said that while the vaccination rate across San Juan County is good, there are pockets within the county – including parts of Bloomfield, Aztec and Farmington — where the rate has fallen behind.

"These vaccination rates really do need to come up," he said.

Dr. Brad Greenberg

Greenberg cited a series of statistics to illustrate how the virus has spread among the unvaccinated population in the county. He said 81% of the people hospitalized with COVID-19 at the San Juan Regional Medical Center have not been fully vaccinated, while 90% of the people in the hospital's intensive-care unit have not been fully vaccinated. A total of 91% of the people on ventilators at the hospital have not been fully vaccinated, and 94% of the COVID-19 deaths at the hospital over the last month were people who were not fully vaccinated.

"Our crisis is now a crisis of the unvaccinated," he said.

Greenberg described the vaccine as the most important tool available to help the hospital and the county emerge from the pandemic.

A chorus of supporting voices

Others who spoke later during the meeting reinforced many of those same points.

Beckstead acknowledged there are many local residents who have made up their mind not to get the vaccine. But he encouraged them to ignore the rhetoric on both sides of the issue and simply study the statistics.

John Beckstead

"It's hard to deny the numbers," he said, referring to the figures that reveal how the virus has raced through the unvaccinated population.

More:Farmington hospital to get 70 additional caregivers to help with 88 COVID-19 patients

"We've got to find a way to reach out to them," he said of county residents who continue to resist the idea of getting vaccinated.

Duckett said the data speaks for itself. He said he chose to get vaccinated after conducting the equivalent of a cost-benefit analysis of the pros and cons of getting vaccinated, and the encouraged others to do so, as well.

He also said the number of Farmington city employees who have contracted the virus is at an all-time high, a development that is straining the city's ability to provide basic services.

"At no other time in the pandemic have we seen so many of our employees test positive," he said.

Hebbe reported the same situation for the Farmington Police Department. He said his personnel went several months without reporting a positive case during the initial COVID-19 wave, but he said the emergence of the Delta variant just as his department was returning to normal operations has changed everything.

Steve Hebbe

"I've certainly seen the impact being different," he said. "The rate of exposure for our officers and the number of positive tests is many times what it was in the initial wave."

Hebbe said he fears his department will experience so many COVID-19 cases that it will not be able to field an adequate number of officers to keep the city safe.

Ferrari said the Sheriff's Office has had the same experience. He said the surge in cases has affected not just his deputies, but other elements of the public safety realm that work closely with law enforcement officials.

He said the dispatch center "was taken down to its knees" by the spread of the virus, and he said the number of cases among officers at the San Juan County Adult Detention Center has been high throughout the pandemic.

Ferrari expressed frustration at having to battle misinformation about the vaccine. He explained how he had recently fielded a question from a citizen who claimed to have heard that buses were headed to San Juan County to vaccinate children without their parents' consent.

"That's not going to happen," Ferrari said, asking residents to do their part to avoid spreading such unfounded rumors.

Shane Ferrari

"Let's definitely get all that bad information out of the conversation," he said.

He appealed to the sense of civic duty among those who have not been vaccinated.

"You have a responsibility to your community," he said. "You have a responsibility to yourself. We're spinning our wheels here."

The impact of the Delta variant on the spread of the virus was illustrated by the state health department's Parajon.

"It's not the same COVID we had at the start of it," she said.

She described the Delta variant as twice as infectious as the initial strain of COVID-19. Parajon cited statistics that show it is being transmitted to an average of eight or nine other people, while the initial strain was only being transmitted to an average of three or four folks.

Smith, the hospital's chief nursing officer, offered a different perspective on the situation, describing the toll the crisis is taking on nurses and caregivers at the hospital.

"They are physically and emotionally drained," she said. "And they are deserving of the community's respect and gratitude."

Greenberg later reiterated Smith's assessment of how the pandemic has affected the hospital's staff on a personal level, saying that most of those nurses and caregivers have seen more serious illness and death than they have witnessed at any point in their career. He said he worries about the long-term impact of that stress on those front-line workers.

No support for vaccine mandates

Nate Duckett

During a question-and-answer period that followed, Beckstead and Duckett dismissed the idea that the County Commission or the Farmington City Council should consider the idea of implementing vaccine mandates for their employees.

Duckett questioned the constitutionality of such measures and said he would consider such a mandate counterproductive to efforts to keep the city fully staffed at a time when it is struggling to fulfill its service obligations.

Beckstead said he couldn't speak for his fellow commissioners, but he doesn't believe there is any interest in adopting such a policy at the county level.

"I don't think the commission is inclined to mandate our employees be vaccinated," he said.

Hebbe and Ferrari fielded a question from a meeting participant about how much responsibility law enforcement officials bear in regard to enforcing mask and social distancing mandates, especially in a business setting. The sheriff said he believes the burden of making sure customers are abiding by those mandates is incumbent on business owners, not his deputies.

More:'Maybe we've all gotten complacent': Full beds, waning immunity and rising cases hit New Mexico

More:'Greatest surge ever' — Hospital ER doctor warns of increase in COVID-19 numbers

"We don't have the reserves to go out and be the mask police," he said.

Ferrari said the stress of the pandemic already has left his department's relationship with the public strained in some instances.

"Education of the public is by far the best avenue," he said, adding that citing people for a failure to wear a mask would tie up his deputies' time and resources and clog the court system.

Hebbe echoed Ferrari's assessment, adding that enforcement of the state mandates would be a "difficult and contentious issue for police to get involved in."

Greenberg addressed several questions about the effectiveness of the vaccine, taking direct aim at those who maintain it is not safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine, and the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines continue to be administered under an emergency use authorization from the agency while they await full approval.

Greenberg characterized the vaccines as "the most studied medication in the history of medicine."

While he acknowledged there have been and continue to be "breakthrough" cases in which people who have been vaccinated become infected with COVID-19, he said the frequency of severe cases or deaths among the vaccinated population is extremely low.

"The vaccinations are actually working," he said.

But he emphasized that vaccinations are only one aspect of fighting the pandemic.

"Having the vaccine is not a panacea," he said. "It does not fix all the problems."

People can pre-register for vaccines for themselves or their children at vaccinenm.org and reserve a dose. Clinic locations are listed on that site, and appointments can be made there.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.