SANTA FE — New Mexico is set to fully reopen on July 1 — with the help of some rounding up to reach a 60% vaccine goal set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The Democratic governor said Friday the state’s push to vaccinate residents against COVID-19 would continue, despite the long-awaited reopening.
“Frankly, we need to be better than 60% fully vaccinated,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “The variants across the globe and in the U.S. present very serious risks to unvaccinated people, even young people.”
State health officials also said that expected vaccine data from Texas and the federal Indian Health Service would likely put New Mexico within the “margin of error” for the 60% fully vaccinated target, with Department of Health data showing 59.4% of eligible residents had completed their vaccine shots as of Friday.
The governor had set the goal of vaccinating 60% of adult residents by the end of Thursday — a target she said would allow the state to fully reopen July 1 since the vaccines can take two weeks to be fully effective.
However, reaching the goal has proven to be difficult, with vaccination rates in some New Mexico counties — many located in the state’s more conservative east side — still hovering below 40%.
In an attempt to reverse a slowdown in the vaccine administration rate, the Lujan Grisham administration in recent weeks announced incentives that included a $100 cash offer to those who complete their vaccine shots. The cash incentives ended Friday, with roughly $750,000 paid out, according to the Governor’s Office, but state health officials are planning more vaccine clinics, such as a Juneteenth event Saturday targeted at the state’s African American population.
In addition, New Mexico followed the lead of such other states as Ohio and Oregon, and launched a $10 million lottery sweepstakes for vaccinated individuals. Four initial winners of $250,000 were picked Friday, one from each region of New Mexico, though their names were not immediately released pending a confirmation of their vaccine status.
Meanwhile, the removal of mass gathering restrictions, restaurant capacity limits and a color-coded risk system for counties will come nearly 16 months — or 476 days to be exact — after Lujan Grisham first declared a public health emergency as the first cases of COVID-19 surfaced in New Mexico.
The restrictions currently 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.
The governor’s handling of the pandemic has drawn praise from some national health officials, but steady criticism from top New Mexico Republicans.
Sstate Senate GOP leaders issued a succinct statement after Friday’s announcement. The statement said simply: “It’s about time.”
Cases at lowest level since April 2020
While pandemic-related business restrictions will be eliminated July 1, top health officials have said they expect New Mexico to keep in place an emergency public health order of some kind, even after lifting the color-coded system.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase has said a face mask requirement for unvaccinated individuals may remain in place, per guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In addition, businesses, Native American tribes and other entities will be able to continue mandating masks for employees, customers and visitors at their discretion, according to the Governor’s Office.
And it’s not yet clear whether face coverings will still be required for students attending New Mexico public schools come this fall.
Currently, only children age 12 and over are eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and 15.8% of state residents between the ages of 12 and 15 had competed their vaccine shots as of Friday, according to state DOH data.
“We believe our level of immunity is in fact greater than 60%, including the immunity of those in our state who have had COVID-19 and have not been vaccinated, and those who have had a mild infection, as well,” Scrase said Friday.
New COVID-19 cases in New Mexico recently dropped to their lowest level since April 2020.
The state’s death rate from the virus has also dropped significantly since its mid-December peak, though an additional six deaths were reported Friday, bringing the state’s death toll to 4,316 since the start of the pandemic.
Many of those who have died were elderly residents with underlying health conditions, though some younger New Mexicans also battled serious cases.
In all, there have been 204,698 confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico — or nearly 10% of the state’s population — and more than 94% have fully recovered, according to state data, a number that could be even higher due to tracking gaps.
Putting health and safety first
More than 30 other states have already fully reopened by eliminating pandemic-related business restrictions and curfews, including New Mexico’s neighboring states of Texas, Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah.
But Lujan Grisham has insisted that other states’ actions would not impact her administration’s decision-making.
The pandemic has also raised questions about the governor’s legal authority to impose business restrictions and spend emergency dollars, but court challenges on such grounds have been unsuccessful to date.
And Lujan Grisham has staunchly defended her handling of the pandemic, specifically citing the state’s efforts to roll out COVID-19 testing and vaccines.
“I know some will say this day is late in coming. I sure wish we’d gotten here sooner,” Lujan Grisham said Friday. “I said all along: Vaccines are the way out, getting shots gets us there quicker.”
“We were always going to put health and safety first,” the governor added. “All along, we have taken the approach that will protect the most New Mexicans, knowing the unique health risks of our population, understanding and respecting how dangerous this virus is.”