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Mexico's Ambitious COVID-19 Vaccination Strategy Falls Into Disarray


Officials in Mexico had said that by the end of January, the country's frontline health workers would be vaccinated. Instead, those ambitious plans have fallen into disarray. To date, fewer than 1% of Mexico's 125 million people have had access to a vaccine. In the meantime, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, the number of new cases and deaths in the country is skyrocketing.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Day and night, people wheel oxygen tanks to this huge warehouse near downtown Mexico City.

JORGE ARBIZO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Yep, I'm here nearly every day, says Jorge Arbizo as he waits to fill up a large tank for his 82-year-old mother. She's had COVID for 25 days. She's refusing to go to a hospital because she doesn't trust the health care system.

ARBIZO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The pandemic really got out of hand this month," says Arbizo. "The government should have enforced a stricter lockdown ahead of the holidays," he says. Now in Mexico City, hospitals are more than 80% full. Cases are edging toward 2 million, including the president who returned to work this week after battling the virus. And more than 166,000 Mexicans have died, placing Mexico third in the world's ranking of COVID deaths. Officials had promised a much rosier scenario, touting multiple vaccine deals with nearly every worldwide manufacturer. They said seniors would get shots by March and that doctors and nurses would be vaccinated by January.

ITZEL HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The first week of January, Itzel Hernandez says she got her first dose. She's a pediatric resident at the huge hospital complex in Mexico City known as Siglo XXI. But four weeks later, she still hasn't been told when to expect the critical second shot.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "It's just bad planning. We shouldn't have been given the first dose if there wasn't enough for everyone to get a second shot," she says. There's less than 90,000 vaccines left in the country. Pfizer-BioNTech told Mexico it had to delay shipments until later this month while it retooled a plant in Belgium. Securing Russia's Sputnik V vaccine has also been difficult. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador personally called Vladimir Putin to seal that deal. Mexican regulators approved its use just last week. Mexico's point person for vaccine procurement, Martha Delgado, an undersecretary at the foreign ministry, admits there have been setbacks.

MARTHA DELGADO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "There have been delivery delays and things have changed, but our plan is solid," she told NPR. She says Mexico has done a remarkable job, especially since it's competing with richer nations scooping up large quantities of vaccines. But critics like Lilly Tellez, a senator with the opposition PAN Party, says the government's strategy is a mess. She points to the disastrous rollout of the computerized vaccine registration system for seniors, which kept crashing the first three days it went online last week.

LILLY TELLEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "The government talks a good game but isn't being truthful," she says. Regulators rushed approval of the Sputnik V vaccine, and she says it shouldn't be used here until the U.S.' FDA or the World Health Organization declare it safe. At the oxygen filling warehouse, Jorge Arbizo loads his huge tank into the back of his pickup. The government's mishandling of the pandemic, he says, has made him think twice about getting vaccinated.

ARBIZO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Maybe I'll get it. I don't know yet." He says there's no rush to decide. He's 58, so it will be months before any vaccines are available to him anyway. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on