SANTA FE — Residents and employees of nursing homes throughout the state are rolling up their sleeves this week as New Mexico expands its COVID-19 vaccine program to some of its most vulnerable adults.
Local pharmacies working with the state began administering vaccines at long-term care facilities Sunday, tapping an initial supply of about 15,000 vaccine doses from Moderna Inc. The state expects to receive about 31,000 vaccines from Moderna overall in coming months.
It marks a significant expansion of the state’s vaccine strategy. About two weeks ago, the first batch of vaccines — from a separate manufacturer, Pfizer Inc. — started going to frontline health care workers and three pueblos.
The shot clinics at nursing homes come after the facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic. Through last week, more than 600 residents of long-term care facilities had died of COVID-19 — about 27% of the state’s overall death toll.
Donald Wilson, executive director of the Village at Northrise in Las Cruces, said the vaccine arrival offers residents fresh hope that life will return to something like normal eventually. About 30 residents and employees at Northrise — where the population includes people with Alzheimer’s and dementia — got the vaccine Monday, with an expanded round of shots scheduled Wednesday.
“We’re still a long way from the finish line,” Wilson said in an interview, “but we can see it — it’s in sight now.”
He was among those getting a shot Monday: “I didn’t feel a thing,” he said afterward.
Walgreens, CVS and a local pharmacy, Vida, are carrying out the vaccines at long-term care facilities. Full protection requires two shots, given four weeks apart.
Katrina Hotrum-Lopez, secretary of the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department, called it a “momentous day for New Mexico.” But she warned that the fight isn’t over.
People who have been vaccinated may still be able to transmit the disease to others, she said Sunday, so masks and social distancing are still necessary.
Vaccination doesn’t mean an immediate return to in-person visits at long-term care facilities. The scale of visitation allowed in nursing homes depends on whether the facility’s home county meets certain statistical targets on disease spread.
Nonetheless, Hotrum-Lopez said, the vaccines represent a breakthrough.
“This disease has devastating results for residents living in congregate settings like nursing homes and assisted living facilities, where asymptomatic cases can rapidly spread,” she said, “making this virus difficult to contain.”
Cases, positivity rate fall
New Mexico is now averaging just over 1,100 new coronavirus cases a day — its lowest average in seven weeks.
But virus deaths remain high. New Mexico reported 36 more virus deaths Monday and has averaged 29 deaths a day over the week, just 19% below the peak from earlier this month.
The state’s official coronavirus-related death toll now stands at 2,380 residents.
Ten of the 36 deaths reported Monday were adults from Bernalillo County, the state’s most-populous county.
The youngest victims statewide were a man and woman in their 30s, one of whom was an inmate at the Guadalupe County Correctional Facility.
The oldest fatalities reported Monday were six people in their 90s.
The share of COVID-19 tests that come back positive is falling. Less than 12% of the tests over the last seven days have been positive, a steep drop from the 24% positivity rate in late November.
Health officials said 788 coronavirus patients are hospitalized in New Mexico, roughly steady from a week ago.
The reported 700 new cases of the virus Monday.
It isn’t clear yet how soon vaccines will be available to the broader public. National estimates range from this spring to the summer or even fall.
New Mexico is expecting to receive a limited supply over the next few months, with the Phase 1 vaccines targeted for specific populations, such as health care workers, tribal communities and long-term care residents.
New Mexicans can pre-register at cv.nmhealth.org to sign up to be notified when the vaccine is available for them.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and members of her Cabinet are not yet scheduled for vaccinations.
Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said New Mexico “is prioritizing front-line health care workers and long-term care facilities with the product we’ve received so far,” and no time line is set yet for Lujan Grisham’s shot, given the limited supply.
Two members of the governor’s Cabinet are physicians — Human Services Secretary David Scrase and Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins — and may receive vaccinations as health care workers.