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Nearly a quarter of NM residents have had at least one shot, 13% both

A medical worker prepares a dose of a COVID-19 vaccination in December. Nearly a quarter of New Mexicans have received at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico officials are forging ahead with their vaccine strategy and threatening hefty fines against health care workers and vaccine recipients who try to diverge from it.

State Health Secretary Tracie Collins said Wednesday that more than 609,000 doses of vaccine have been administered. She said about 23% of New Mexicans have been at least partially vaccinated and 13% fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning they have received two doses of vaccine. New Mexico is No. 1 in the country in terms of the percentage of vaccine doses a state has received that have been given to patients, she said.

Still, some leaders are calling for a shift in vaccination strategies.

President Joe Biden this week called on states to move to quickly vaccinate teachers. And Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., is questioning why health care officials are prioritizing a person’s second dose of vaccine ahead of someone else’s first shot, which New Mexico and other states do.

Heinrich and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Maryland, earlier this week wrote a letter to the White House Coronavirus Task Force asking the group to consider a different approach. The senators suggested using what is planned to be someone’s second dose as another person’s first dose. Then officials could rely on the growing inventory of vaccines for booster shots down the road, they said.

The letter says recent data shows one shot of the vaccine made by both Pfizer and Moderna is effective against severe illness, hospitalizations and death. The senators say they believe expanding the rollout of single doses “would be the most societally beneficial choice.”

The two-page, six paragraph letter contains 10 footnotes citing various medical journals, government studies and reports and other sources to make the senators’ case.

Sen. Martin Heinrich

Sen. Martin Heinrich

“Rapidly and strategically expanding first-dose vaccine coverage will help to more quickly reduce the susceptible population, protect high-risk individuals, and alleviate strain on our health care system in the face of a (coronavirus variant) B.1.1.7 surge,” they wrote. “Slowing the spread will save lives.”

NM strategy

New Mexico health officials noted during a teleconference Wednesday that the pace and strategy of the state’s vaccine rollout is one of the reasons for a downward trend in COVID cases.

There were 359 new cases reported Wednesday, including 102 in Bernalillo County. The state also reported 13 additional deaths, bringing the statewide toll to 3,753 since the start of the pandemic, according to a Department of Health news release.

Collins said New Mexico prioritizes giving persons their second dose of vaccine within 21 to 28 days after they received their first shot of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.

The state will continue to do so, she said.

“We’ve evaluated what is the most efficient and appropriate approach to vaccine rollout … and we are in agreement that we do not just want to give everyone one shot,” Collins said. “We want to complete the series.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top U.S. infectious disease official, told The Washington Post that the country will continue with a two-dose strategy. Fauci said, among other reasons, the change in messaging would cause difficulties, according to national media reports.

New Mexico is prioritizing health care workers and first responders, folks 75 years old or older and people with medical conditions that make them more vulnerable to severe disease.

Collins said the state is working with the White House on how best to comply with the president’s directive to vaccinate more educators.

Already, Collins said more than 15,000 New Mexico teachers had been vaccinated – mostly because they had another qualifying factor.

Biden on Tuesday called on every grade-school employee and child care provider to receive at least one shot of a vaccine by the end of the month.

Collins said teachers in New Mexico will soon qualify for vaccines.

“That was the next group in line for us, so they are a priority to us as well,” she said. “We’re going to work closely with the White House to figure out how to make this happen.”

Consequences

Some people, both health care workers and those seeking a vaccine, have found ways to deviate from the state’s vaccine plan, Collins acknowledged.

For that reason, late last month the state issued a public health order threatening people with up to a $5,000 fine for failing to follow the state’s vaccine plan, or for lying on the state vaccine registration system.

“We were having problems with either vaccine providers not clearly understanding the guidance … and people were going out of order without justification,” Collins said. “We had instances where people were saying they were a certain occupation that would make them eligible for the vaccine when, in fact, they were not.”

The new public health order gives health care workers steps they must follow to ensure that qualified people have first access to vaccine. It also requires that people be truthful when registering for a vaccine. Both health care workers and vaccine recipients could face penalties for not following the order.

“It’s really because we are still looking at a limited supply versus demand,” Collins said. “And we need to make sure people understand there are consequences to that.”

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