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NM eyes early summer for ‘general public’ vaccinations

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s eager rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine – about 101,000 doses have already been administered – could soon allow for in-person schooling to resume, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday.

While the governor did not provide any specific dates, she said getting public school students back in the classroom was a top priority.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Many students have attended classes remotely for nearly one year – a setup complicated by broadband limitations in rural parts of New Mexico – and recent studies suggest limited transmission of the virus in school settings.

“We are very optimistic that many things, not all things, are right around the corner,” Lujan Grisham said during a Thursday virtual news conference that was broadcast online.

The Democratic governor also expressed optimism that vaccine doses could be available to the general public by this spring or early summer, depending on the pace federal supplies are delivered to New Mexico.

“Our confidence level is building that we will in fact achieve that timeline in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said.

To date, New Mexico has administered 100,601 vaccines – out of 153,475 delivered to the state, according to the Department of Health. More than 38,000 have been administered in the last week.

New Mexico also ranks among the top 15 states in vaccinations administered per capita, according to federal data.

For now, the state is focusing on vaccinating adults 75 and older, though state health officials said Thursday they are considering a recent federal recommendation to offer doses to people 65 and older.

As in other states, older New Mexicans have a greater chance of dying of COVID-19 if they contract the disease than do younger state residents.

And the state has an increasingly aging population, with Human Services Secretary David Scrase saying Thursday that more than 26% of New Mexico’s population will be 65 or older by 2030.

Both Scrase and Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins said they’re optimistic the state will be able to increase its vaccination capacity in the coming weeks, due to more partnerships with hospitals and a growing number of vaccine providers.

“I don’t think our capacity to get vaccines in arms will be the limiting step,” said Scrase, who cited shipment sizes as a variable that could affect the vaccination pace.

Lujan Grisham also said Thursday the state is working to expand the capacity of its vaccination call center, after New Mexicans reported long wait times and trouble reaching agents to register for the vaccine.

“We got overwhelmed,” the governor said, “and we take responsibility for that.”

The Department of Health has urged New Mexicans to register online to be notified when their vaccine is ready. More than 412,000 people have registered so far.

29 more die; hospitals still full

Lujan Grisham announced another 29 coronavirus deaths around New Mexico on Thursday, pushing the statewide death toll to 2,836 residents.

Health officials also reported more than 1,400 new cases of the virus Thursday.

The number of coronavirus hospitalizations, however, fell to 691 on Thursday after several days in the low 700s.

Scrase said many hospitals remain full – not just because of COVID-19, but because January is a busy period for hospitals in general, due to other illnesses.

“We are clearly not out of the woods with hospitalizations,” he said.

New Mexico is now averaging about 1,200 new virus cases a day, or seven times more than its reopening goal of just 168 a day.

The state this week also announced that it had detected its first case of the new, potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus, underscoring the need for people to wear masks and take other steps to limit transmission of the disease, health officials said.

The person infected is a Bernalillo County man in his 60s who recently traveled to the United Kingdom. He has not had to be hospitalized, according to the Department of Health.

Poll: 66% want schools open

Lujan Grisham has faced criticism over her administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly regarding school closures and business restrictions.

But the governor has defended the actions as necessary to slow the spread of the virus, while repeatedly pointing out that New Mexico is at greater risk than other states due to limited hospital capacity, high rates of poverty and other factors.

A poll of New Mexico parents, grandparents and guardians released Thursday by a nonprofit group called Adelante Now found 66% of those surveyed believed public schools should be fully or partially opened, while just 25% said schools should be closed to in-person learning.

Tom Wright, the executive director of Adelante Now Education Foundation, cited the importance of public education to New Mexico’s future.

“It is imperative that we open our schools immediately, even if it is on a hybrid model. We are confident that the leadership of our school districts can ensure a safe reopening of our schools as we continue to battle this disastrous virus,” Wright said.

While Lujan Grisham did not announce any dates Thursday for a more widespread return, some teachers and other school employees around New Mexico have already been vaccinated and more could receive the vaccine in the coming days.

“We really want in-person learning … as quickly as possible,” the governor said.

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