ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — First lady Jill Biden has kicked off a three day visit to the U.S. Southwest on Wednesday with a tour of a vaccination clinic in New Mexico, where early efforts to get people registered for shots helped to propel the state's standing as a national leader in vaccine distribution.
The tour includes stops in Albuquerque and later the Navajo Nation as the United States is set to meet President Joe Biden's goal of administering 200 million coronavirus doses in his first 100 days in office. The president also outlined his administration's latest plans to motivate more Americans to get shots as demand diminishes.
In New Mexico, nearly 40% of residents 16 and older have been fully vaccinated. While eligibility was expanded earlier this month as part of the Biden administration's push, the focus is now shifting to younger people ahead of the summer break.
State health officials also are recruiting trusted voices in local communities to respond to skepticism about vaccine efficacy and safety. The first lady had encouraging words for three people waiting for shots at a clinic in Albuquerque.
"I've had the shot, and it doesn't hurt," she said at the clinic that the governor described as a linchpin of efforts to serve minority communities.
Viviana Galvez, who works at the clinic, told Biden she was hesitant at first to receive a shot because she gets steroid injections in her spine and was concerned about what kind of effect that might have. After doing more research, she decided to go ahead and get vaccinated.
"What do we have to lose? We don't want to lose anymore lives, we don't want to lose our family members, our friends. We just need to get it done," Galvez said. Her mother and daughter also received their shots.
Staff at the Albuquerque clinic have been working overtime and on weekends to immunize more people.
"It's been a long year. People are tired, but they're hopeful," said Will Kaufman, medical director at First Choice Community Healthcare.
Biden was accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose administration has been working to ensure that shots are distributed to rural and underserved areas through mobile clinics and partnerships with community health organizations.
At a drive-thru vaccination clinic in remote Mora County on Tuesday, health workers and members of a volunteer medical corps sped through a list of registered patients and offered shots of the Moderna vaccine to unregistered companions and a few passersby. Emergency technicians fanned out at day's end, traveling down dirt roads to administer shots to homebound elderly residents in a sprawling county with just 4,500 residents who are 80% Latino. Mora is among the poorest counties in the nation.
The clinic's lead pharmacist, Uri Bassan, said local vaccination efforts are shifting toward eligible high school students before they disperse on vacation and to summer jobs and college.
Melvin Maestas, 44, heard of the clinic by word of mouth and arrived with his 81-year-old father, who has dementia. They both received doses.
"To me it's a relief. I'm worried that it's starting to come up again," Maestas said of infection rates.
As part of her swing through the Southwest, the first lady also will meet Thursday with Navajo President Jonathan Nez and first lady Phefelia Nez in Window Rock, Arizona, before delivering a radio address. She is scheduled to attend a listening session Friday with Navajo students before taking a tour of a vaccination site that caters to Native Americans.
Amid Biden's visit to states that stretch to border with Mexico, New Mexico state health officials highlighted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is required to stay away from vaccine sites and that the state only shares information with federal immigration officials under very extraordinary circumstances.
Biden and the governor wrapped up their quick visit to the Albuquerque clinic by handing out buttons and stickers.