Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
The state Department of Health on Friday dramatically expanded the number of New Mexicans eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, clearing the way for an additional half a million people in the state to get their shot.
The expansion includes all essential workers and residents in congregate care settings. But the largest single new eligibility category is composed of those ages 60-74 – even if they don’t have underlying health conditions. The DOH estimates up to 360,000 New Mexicans fall into that group, and about 24 percent of those have already been fully vaccinated because they met the criteria in other categories.
Friday’s announcement means more than 1.62 million New Mexicans now have the green light to get a vaccine, which has increased in supply 63 percent a week over the past six weeks. Nearly 630,000 New Mexicans have received a first dose so far, according to the DOH.
More than one million doses have been administered so far in the state’s three-month-old phased-in vaccination rollout. That plan put the state’s most elderly seniors, those 75 and over, and those most at risk because of their work or chronic health conditions into the top priority groups.
Those still unvaccinated who qualified in the earlier phases, which include medical first responders, those 75 and older, those with chronic health conditions and educators and staff, will continue to have priority for vaccinations over the new groups, said Matt Bieber, director of communications for the state Department of Health.
With the addition of the four new groups, more than 1,620,000 New Mexicans are now eligible for a vaccine out of a total of more than 1,680,000 identified as ages 16 and over, the DOH said.
The remaining 60,000 or so could become eligible by mid-to-late April, the DOH said, allowing all New Mexicans ages 16 and over the opportunity to get vaccinated. Children under the age of 16 are not yet being vaccinated anywhere in the U.S. They are considered very low risk and earlier vaccine trials did not include children.
“By expanding the pool of New Mexicans eligible for vaccine, we can keep the momentum going and ensure that New Mexico remains one of the nation’s vaccinations leaders,” said DOH cabinet secretary Dr. Tracie Collins. “At the same time, we will redouble our efforts to reach and vaccinate seniors and others in the early phases who have not yet received their shots.”
About 73 percent of the people 75 and older who have registered with the state to receive vaccine have had at least one dose, the DOH stated.
The state vaccine dashboard on Friday showed that of the 99,829 people in this group who have registered, 73,631 have had at least one shot. That leaves about 26,200 unvaccinated, although another 2,377 have appointments for an initial dose.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, New Mexico ranks first among all states for the doses administered per capita, but it is 33rd in doses administered per 100,000 people among the 65-plus population.
Older people are most at risk for serious illness from COVID-19 and the AARP organization in this month’s news bulletin says 90 percent of the nation’s COVID-19 deaths have been in people over 50.
The CDC in mid-January revised its recommendation for vaccinations by age groups, advising states to give vaccines to those 65 and older.
Until Friday’s announcement, New Mexico remained the only state in the country to continue to adhere to a 75+ minimum age for priority by age group.
Meanwhile, Friday’s addition of front-line essential workers for vaccine eligibility potentially affects about 67,000 New Mexicans, including grocery store employees, the DOH says.
Greg Frazier, president of the United Food & Commercial Workers Union of New Mexico, said grocery store employees in New Mexico have been going to work throughout the pandemic.
“They had to come to work scared and some did not fare well but they still came to work. They are excited to get the vaccine.”
Frazier said of his membership of about 4,500 people, a large number “actually got COVID and then took it home to their families.” They are tested for the coronavirus regularly by their employers, he said.
Other essential workers now eligible include: caregivers, public transit and public health employees, firefighters, those who work in retail, in auto or bike repair shops, in the energy industry, at banks or animal shelters, and those who work in the media or legal and accounting fields.
The loosening of eligibility restrictions follows the lead of President Joe Biden, who announced recently he hoped to achieve universal eligibility for COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. by May 1. More than 17 states have already widened eligibility rolls, according to the New York Times.
But in New Mexico, the DOH said the decision to open up eligibility was based in part because the state had achieved an important milestone – more than 60 percent of the currently eligible groups have received at least one dose.
Yet another reason has to do with vaccine providers in about 13 counties no longer being able to find eligible patients to fill appointment slots.
“With today’s announcement we hope to see that change (in vaccine administration),” David Morgan, a DOH spokesman told the Journal.
Those counties experiencing “challenges” are located primarily in the southeastern and northwest part of New Mexico, Morgan said.
They are: Lincoln, Curry, McKinley, San Juan, Lea, Chaves, Cibola, Roosevelt, Quay, Eddy, San Miguel, Hildalgo and Guadalupe. A number of those counties are located near borders with other states in which minimum age eligibility for vaccinations has been lower.
For instance, Texas lowered the age of eligibility to 50 and older about nine days ago. Prior to that, those 65 and older could get shots. Arizona lowered the age to 55 in early March, but already had been vaccinating 65-year-olds and up.
It isn’t clear how many people have gone out of state, especially to Texas, to get vaccinated, but the DOH is trying to track down that information.
Meanwhile, the state’s COVID-19 update on Friday reported 226 new cases, and five additional deaths. That brings the total number of cases to 189,374 statewide. So far, 3,882 people in New Mexico have died from the virus.
Though the 65 and older group was mentioned in draft state vaccination plans last year, state officials ultimately settled on the 75 and up category, which is estimated to be about 153,000 people in New Mexico.
Many states have based their vaccination priorities on age.
But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has said prioritizing vaccines for the chronic condition group is vital because of the high percentage of New Mexicans 16 and older who have health conditions that put them at greater risk for serious illness from COVID-19.
The state continues to urge New Mexicans to register online for a vaccination at cvvaccine.nmhealth.org, but people can also get vaccines without registering through the state, as long as they meet eligibility rules.
Some have received their shots by checking with their physicians, health care organizations and local pharmacies.