Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico does not plan to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for school attendance when it becomes available, likely later this year, a top state health official said Wednesday.
Health Secretary Tracie Collins told members of a legislative panel she’s hopeful federal approval for different COVID-19 vaccinations for children under age 12 will be issued by December – if not sooner.
Currently, only those 12 and older are eligible to receive the vaccine and slightly more than 30% of children between ages 12 and 15 had gotten at least one shot as of this week, according to Department of Health data.
New Mexico currently has state-required immunizations for polio, Hepatitis B and several other diseases in order for students to attend schools, with some allowable exemptions.
Those include a medical exemption that requires a physician’s certification, a religious exemption that requires a written affirmation from a religious leader and a religious exemption that parents or legal guardians can submit.
“We will not be moving toward requiring the vaccine,” Collins said during a Wednesday meeting of the interim Legislative Health and Human Services Committee at the state Capitol.
The committee hearing gave lawmakers the opportunity to question state health officials about New Mexico’s vaccine rollout, which has coincided with the state’s virus infection rate dropping to its lowest level since April 2020. The death rate has also gone down significantly, though one additional death was reported Wednesday, bringing the death toll due to the pandemic to 4,347 people.
Some legislators expressed concern about the vulnerability of children still too young to get the vaccine, especially as the contagious Delta variant has caused outbreaks in other parts of the country.
“It’s just very frightening right now as a parent,” Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe, said Wednesday.
Overall, New Mexico COVID-19 vaccination rates increase by age group, likely due to risk perceptions that younger residents will not experience serious symptoms if they contract the virus, said DOH Infectious Disease Bureau Chief Daniel Burke.
The state’s overall vaccination rate has leveled off since the start of June, with 62.9% of eligible residents age 16 and older having finished their vaccine series as of Wednesday, according to DOH data.
“We’re pretty much plateauing now with all age groups,” Burke acknowledged.
The reluctance toward getting children vaccinated against COVID-19 could also be related to concerns over side effects associated with the vaccine, specifically cardiac issues like myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle, that has been found among teenagers and young adults in the United States.
However, as of mid-June, a total of just 57 individuals around New Mexico had been hospitalized after getting the COVID-19 vaccine – or about 0.00475% of those who have gotten at least one dose of the vaccine, according to DOH data provided to the Journal.
The data showed six of the 57 cases involved individuals age 34 or younger, and none of those people died.
Six older individuals have died after getting vaccinated though pre-existing conditions could also be the cause of death in those cases, a DOH spokesman said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, of the other 51 hospitalizations, 11 were due to neurological issues, 10 were due to pulmonary issues and eight were related to cardiac reasons such as myocarditis.
And, in all, the occurrence of serious side effects to the vaccine have not been higher in New Mexico than in other states, Burke said Wednesday.
He also said the state is phasing out large-scale vaccination events with the rate of those with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at 71.2% as of Wednesday. That approach is being replaced by a “ground game” targeted at unvaccinated individuals, he said.
Collins, who will be stepping down from her Cabinet-level post at the end of the month to return to her job as a dean at the University of New Mexico, said the Department of Health now believes between 26,000 to 30,000 New Mexicans traveled out of state this year to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Obtaining that out-of-state vaccine data, which is not included in the state’s records, had proven to be a challenging task in recent months.
While reasons for the out-of-state vaccine exodus could vary, some state residents have said they traveled to Texas or other states to get their COVID-19 shots instead of waiting until they were eligible to do so in New Mexico.