Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A month after the federal government recommended that states permit people 65 and older to get the COVID-19 vaccination as a priority group, New Mexico remains one of four states that limit eligibility based on age to those 75 and older.
At least 38 states now allow people age 65 and older to be vaccinated, according to a Journal survey and data published by The New York Times. A handful have set eligibility at 70, but some are planning to lower that age in the coming weeks.
There is no indication that will happen any time soon in New Mexico.
To date, 48% of New Mexico’s COVID-19 deaths have occurred in those 75 and older, while 23% of deaths were people 65 to 74. The statewide death toll reached 3,550 on Tuesday.
Under the state’s phased-in vaccination plan, several hundred thousand New Mexicans between the ages of 65 and 74 are behind an even larger group of those currently eligible for vaccination – those 16 and older deemed at risk because of a chronic health condition.
Asked when New Mexico might lower the age to 65, state Department of Health spokesman Matt Bieber told the Journal in an email, “The feds are free to make recommendations, and states are free to make implementation choices. When we have more supply, we will be able to vaccinate more New Mexicans.”
As of Tuesday, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Hawaii and Rhode Island were alone in limiting eligibility to those 75 and older – a population estimated at more than 153,000 people in New Mexico. And, as of Tuesday, just over 44% in that group had received their first dose.
A Journal survey shows Oregon has a statewide criteria of 75 years old, but permits vaccinations of those 65 and older in some counties.
Two states, Vermont and South Dakota, just this week opened eligibility from 75 to those age 70. And Rhode Island’s vaccination website reported that vaccines for those 65 to 74 “will likely begin in late February.”
A number of states have published specific dates as to when the public can expect age eligibility to be expanded. New Mexico has provided the season of the year, such as winter or spring, in which the phased-in vaccinations are expected to occur.
New Mexico is receiving about 60,000 doses a week from the federal government, but state health officials say the vaccine supply falls short of meeting the demand.
Supply is a factor
New Mexico’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has been lauded as among the most efficient in the country, with 98% of doses received being administered statewide.
But the reach of the vaccine to the age group that has suffered the highest percentage of deaths in the state hasn’t gone according to expectations.
Back in December, the state’s highest priority was vaccinating health care workers, first responders, long-term care staff, and congregate setting workers – which were all in the phase 1A category.
On Jan. 8, the state moved to phase 1B to permit vaccination of those 75 and older, followed by those 16 and up with a chronic health condition.
The 75-and-older group “faces the highest risk of hospitalization, morbidity and mortality from COVID-19,” said the state’s vaccine distribution plan. “Vaccine scheduling appointments will be made available to this group as soon as Phase 1B begins; it may take several weeks for all eligible seniors to receive a vaccine.”
But, on Tuesday, the state Department of Health reported about 44% of those 75 and older eligible to be vaccinated had received an initial vaccination as of late last week. Nearly 15% were fully vaccinated.
Bieber told the Journal that the delay in vaccinating those eligible in the 75-and-older group is because of “Supply – and a need to complete boosters for those who have received primary doses.”
Most every state has put the same groups at the top of the priority list, which is New Mexico’s 1A category. But states diverge on who will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines after that.
For instance, in late January, Oregon began vaccinating educators and school staff more than a week before scheduling vaccines for its oldest age group, 80 and older.
Colorado began offering Coloradans age 65 to 69 vaccines on Feb. 8. Those age 16 to 64 with two or more high-risk conditions are not yet eligible.
But New Mexico has placed a high priority on the at-risk population aged 16 and older who have at least one of more than 10 medical conditions.
Massachusetts plans to require two or more conditions when it expands eligibility beyond the 75-and-older group.
South Dakota is vaccinating ages 70 and older, along with high-risk patients who are defined as on dialysis, post-transplant or with active cancer. Those with two or more other health conditions are farther down on the priority list and aren’t eligible.
Input from a diverse team
DOH’s Bieber said New Mexico put the 75-and-older category ahead of all other groups, except those deemed most at risk in the 1A phase. The state asks New Mexicans to register on the state DOH vaccine website at vaccinenm.org for notification of where and when a vaccine is available.
“We send invitations to those in the 75+ category and, when those aren’t filled, we send invitations to those in the health conditions category,” Bieber added.
The state DOH has estimated that the latter group with health conditions numbers nearly 600,000. No information was available Tuesday on how many in that specific group have received at least one dose of vaccine.
Still waiting for the DOH vaccination green light in the IB group are frontline essential workers unable to work remotely, such as grocery store employees, teachers and school staff.
Under the vaccination plan, adults aged 60 to 74 are after that group, and are in the phase 1C group with other essential workers who can’t work remotely.
The DOH estimates the population of New Mexicans aged 60 to 74 at 360,831. About 21% of that population had received at least a first dose as of Tuesday, presumably because they qualify under another category, DOH records show.
The last group expected to be vaccinated is the general population, predicted to occur this summer.
The priority list, according to the New Mexico vaccination plan, included “input from a team that is diverse by race, ethnicity, language, gender, professional training, clinical settings, life experiences, and informed by health equity and racial justice principles.”
“We recognize that vaccination success will depend on engaging local community leaders and groups as primary carriers of information, and building trust to overcome lack of media access, economic isolation and bureaucratic barriers,” the plan states.
Of New Mexico’s population estimated at 2.1 million, about 6.6% have been fully vaccinated.