Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico is preparing to offer coronavirus vaccinations to frontline health care workers and nursing home residents as soon as November – if vaccines are available by then.
And the shots, state officials say, could be available to everyone else in January.
But the timing is no sure thing.
State health officials said this week that New Mexico’s rollout of coronavirus vaccines will hinge on how much is available from the federal government and definitive answers on their effectiveness and safety for the general public.
The state is expecting more than one vaccine to be approved – most of which will require two shots, three to four weeks apart.
“We do not know what the vaccine supply chain timelines will be for each vaccine,” Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the Human Services Department, said Thursday in a written statement to the Journal. “To be clear, the state is not going to simply take the federal administration’s word for it, and no vaccine will be distributed here in our state without an independent review of its efficacy and safety.”
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said New Mexico’s priority will be health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities – a population particularly vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
The vaccine could be available to them as early as November or December, Scrase said. Depending on supplies and other factors, he said, the vaccines could be available free to the general public in January.
New Mexico, Scrase said, has a broad network of potential distribution sites – at public health offices, hospitals, pharmacies and other locations – to handle the expected demand for coronavirus vaccinations.
“If the demand were dramatically bigger than it is for the flu vaccine – which we seem to do pretty well every year vaccinating everybody who wants a vaccine – I think we should be able to handle it,” Scrase said in a media briefing Wednesday.
A variety of vaccines
Bryce Chackerian, a University of New Mexico professor who studies vaccine development, said a variety of potential vaccines have produced encouraging results so far.
There’s a chance, he said, that enough preliminary data could be available to result in federal licensing of some vaccines by November or December.
“I think the data so far is pointing in the direction that we’re going to have a vaccine soon,” Chackerian said in an interview.
Information from the early-stage trials, he said, shows the leading vaccines seem to be safe, and later phases indicate the vaccines induced the kind of immune response researchers want to see.
The more-advanced trials underway now, Chackerian said, include enrolling tens of thousands of research participants. Some participants get the vaccines, and others get a placebo, allowing researchers to examine the effects on both groups.
“The whole clinical trial process has been accelerated,” Chackerian said, “but they’re doing the exact same thing they do with any vaccine. … I don’t think there have been sacrifices that have been made for the sake of speed.”
Chackerian, a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology, runs a lab at UNM that has studied the virus. Researchers all over the world, he said, are working to develop the coronavirus vaccines.
“When you have this combination of scientific know-how and financial muscle to move vaccines forward,” Chackerian said, “that makes things happen a lot faster than in the past.”
Two vaccines are farthest along in the development process, he said, but others are close behind, leading to the possibility that a variety of vaccines will be available eventually.
Get a flu shot
The federal government has told states to be ready for a coronavirus vaccine Nov. 1, or just two days before the presidential election.
Asked about whether the timing might be politically motivated, Scrase said he couldn’t speak to “the motivations on that.”
McGinnis Porter said federal officials, not the state, developed the timeline. She noted that no vaccine has been recommended yet for emergency authorization.
Given the uncertainty, she said, “it is impossible to establish a confidence level for the November-to-January timeframe.”
Nonetheless, a large team in New Mexico, Scrase said, has been preparing since June for how to handle the vaccines once they’re available. The group includes medical providers, epidemiologists and ethicists, he said.
Even with a vaccine, however, life won’t suddenly go back to normal right away, state health officials said.
“A vaccine that is safe and effective is only the first step and, it is important to note that the federal government’s approval threshold is 50% effectiveness,” McGinnis Porter said. “So even with a bunch of widely distributed safe and ‘effective’ vaccines, it could be quite some time before we get back to (any) kind of normal.”
Developing herd immunity, she said, will require a significant percentage of people to be vaccinated.
“In general, we would need to see a fairly dramatic decline in case counts even after all this occurs to consider removing mask requirements,” McGinnis Porter said.
To help prepare, Scrase said, New Mexicans should get a flu shot this month or in October.
“Let’s get those done with,” he said, “so our distribution system can handle COVID.”