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NM reopening target in doubt as vaccinations short of 60%

Maria and Buddy Espinosa have lunch at the Santa Fe Bite restaurant in Santa Fe on Wednesday. Restaurant can now offer dining at 75% capacity indoors and outdoors, but the state may lift the restriction after 60% of its adult residents are vaccinated. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – After an earlier slowdown, New Mexicans are completing their COVID-19 vaccinations at a faster pace since the Department of Health started offering $100 in cash to get the shot, top health officials said Wednesday.

But it isn’t clear whether New Mexico will reach its goal of vaccinating 60% of adult residents by the end of Thursday – the target Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration said would allow the state to fully reopen July 1.

“We really want to meet our target,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said in a public briefing Wednesday. “We really want to reopen the economy.”

New Mexico made slow progress Wednesday toward the vaccine goal. The share of residents with all their shots rose to 58.7%, just 0.2 percentage points above Tuesday’s total.

During Wednesday’s briefing, Scrase and Health Secretary Tracie Collins – the top physicians in Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet – did not directly answer questions about whether New Mexico would push back its reopening target if the state fails to reach the 60% goal by Thursday.

They said they would review the data with Lujan Grisham on Friday before deciding how to proceed.

Scrase and Collins instead focused on encouraging as many New Mexicans as possible to get either the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or the second of the two doses required for the Moderna and Pfizer shots.

“I’m not concerned at this point,” Collins said, “but I’m keeping my eye on the data.”

They highlighted the state’s $100 cash offer to anyone who completes their vaccine shots by Thursday and the $250,000 lottery awards that will begin Friday for people who register for the state’s vaccine sweepstakes. Four winners will be picked this week, one from each region of New Mexico.

The one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available at the Pit this week in Albuquerque, according to the University of New Mexico Health Sciences. Residents can visit to learn more and register.

Thirty-four states have fully reopened by eliminating pandemic-related business restrictions and curfews, according to the AARP. They include New Mexico’s neighboring states of Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah.

Although the Lujan Grisham administration has relaxed business restrictions and scaled back a statewide face mask mandate in recent weeks, some restrictions remain under the state’s color-coded system, which factors in county-level virus trends.

The restrictions now in place for all 33 New Mexico counties include limiting restaurants to 75% of capacity indoors and on patios and barring more than six patrons from sitting at the same table. The state’s public health order also bans public gatherings of more than 150 people.

But Scrase said that other governors’ decisions will not impact New Mexico’s decision-making.

“We’re not using Texas data to decide what’s best for New Mexico,” he said, citing elevated vulnerability to the virus in New Mexico due to its small supply of hospital beds per capita and other factors.

‘Smart investment’

New Mexico officials rolled out the incentive programs in recent weeks after the state’s COVID-19 vaccine administration rate began to slow.

Scrase released data showing a 30% increase in Moderna and Pfizer booster shots in the days after the launch of the campaign offering $100 for completing vaccination. The number of Johnson & Johnson shots jumped more than fivefold, from 142 to 793.

New Mexico allocated about $2.7 million of its federal stimulus funding for incentives, including the $100 cash awards, Scrase said.

Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said that through Tuesday, about $300,000 had been distributed through the $100 incentive, in addition to “hundreds of gift cards” and on-site lottery scratchers.

Scrase said that the incentives are working and that the cost is small compared with the spending on COVID hospitalizations and other health care.

“We believe this is a smart investment,” he said.

The new COVID-19 variants, Scrase said, make it all the more important for people to complete their vaccine series. The first shot of the Pfizer vaccine, for example, is only 33% effective against the Delta variant but 88% effective after the second shot.

“The more vaccinated our population is, in general, the more resistant we are to these spreadable variants,” Scrase said.

The state had two more days to reach its goal of vaccinating 60% of residents 16 and older: Shots administered Wednesday and Thursday will count toward the target, and the data will be released Friday.

Lujan Grisham this spring established July 1 as the target for New Mexico to lift capacity restrictions on businesses and reopen the state, although some regulations, she said, might remain in place.

Lea County Manager Mike Gallagher said it’s still unclear how successful the vaccine incentive programs will end up being.

But he said the various incentives, which include $1 million for counties whose vaccination rates rise by at least 10% over the coming days, are “another tool in the governor’s toolbox” to encourage people to get vaccinated.

In Lea County, 37.3% of residents were fully vaccinated as of Wednesday, a number that’s far lower than the statewide average, according to state Department of Health data.

However, Gallagher said the differing business rules in New Mexico and Texas, which borders Lea County, haven’t necessarily been problematic.

“I don’t think it’s awkward,” he told the Journal. “We follow the rules set by Santa Fe.”

Angela Mason, a manager and co-owner of Santa Fe Bite, a restaurant in the capital city, said she watches the vaccine numbers every day to see when New Mexico might lift business-capacity limits.

She expects to add tables and offer seating at the counter once New Mexico relaxes the rules for restaurants.

“We are paying attention to what is safe and what is not,” Mason said, “and we want to do the best thing for our customers.”

COVID-19 myths dismissed

Collins on Wednesday bluntly shot down a number of myths about the COVID-19 vaccine. It won’t make you magnetic or infect you with COVID-19, she said, and there’s no evidence it affects fertility.

As with any vaccine, she said, scientists will continue to study side effects.

“Let’s keep going, New Mexico,” Collins said of the vaccine pace. “We’re going to make it.”

Case rates continue to fall. The daily average of new COVID-19 cases is at its lowest point since April of last year.

New Mexico reported just 82 new coronavirus cases Wednesday and three more deaths. The virus-related death toll is 4,305.

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