Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The more contagious COVID-19 variant flooding New Mexico is reaching vaccinated residents, not just the unvaccinated.
In fact, fully vaccinated individuals made up 19% of new COVID-19 infections and 13% of hospitalizations in a recent four-week period, according to a Journal analysis of state data.
The numbers do demonstrate that unvaccinated people still make up the vast majority of New Mexico’s coronavirus cases and hospitalizations, even amid the recent surge.
But vaccinated residents have been caught in the wave, too.
Megan Gleason, a music major at the University of New Mexico, was one of the breakthrough cases this month. She reported some exhaustion and nausea, but she believes the vaccine provided protection from more serious symptoms.
“I got pretty lucky,” Gleason, 20, said Friday. “I don’t think I would have even known I had COVID unless I tested positive.”
Physicians at UNM Hospital and elsewhere say breakthrough cases are expected in any vaccine program. COVID-19 vaccines still demonstrate powerful protection against hospitalization and death.
“No vaccine is perfect,” Dr. Rohini McKee of UNM Hospital said this week. “In the history of vaccines, there have always been breakthrough infections.”
As an increasing percentage of New Mexicans get the vaccine, they are showing up as a greater share of the state’s new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.
David Morgan, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said the rising number of vaccinated adults means the percentage of “vaccinated breakthrough cases will go up, even if the vaccine remains just as effective.”
But there are also some studies, he said, indicating COVID-19 vaccines are less effective at preventing infections from the delta variant of the virus, though they remain highly effective at preventing serious illness.
“The vaccine works to prime the immune system to fight the virus more effectively,” Morgan said, “but with such a highly infectious variant we are finding that vaccinated persons can still transmit the virus which is why there are renewed mask recommendations to reduce transmission, particularly to those unvaccinated who are at risk of more severe disease.”
Since Feb. 1, people who weren’t fully vaccinated have made up 91% of the state’s COVID-19 cases and 92% of the hospitalizations.But the picture is changing.
According to a Journal analysis of Department Health reports in a recent four-week period:
• People who aren’t fully vaccinated made up about 81% of the new cases reported by the state, or 10,644 of the 13,191 infections.
• Fully vaccinated individuals made up 19% of new cases.
• People not fully vaccinated made up about 87% of COVID-19 hospitalizations, or 644 of 742 hospitalized patients. (An internal estimate by the state put the figure at 86%, Morgan said.)
• Fully vaccinated individuals made up 13% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations.
Morgan said the state compiled similar figures for the last month, but he warned that the percentages could change as more information comes in.
“Over the next month we believe the data trends will stabilize,” he said, “and we can be more confident in these numbers.”
Gleason, who serves as editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo newspaper at UNM, said she was careful even after receiving her vaccine earlier this year.
As a musician – she plays the flute – Gleason said she was particularly concerned about the possibility that COVID-19 would damage her lungs.
She continued social distancing and wearing a mask even after vaccination. But she said she tested positive after visiting her partner’s parents in Arkansas, though she isn’t certain when or how she caught it.
“I definitely feel immensely grateful that I’m vaccinated,” she said. “I’m sure it would have been so much worse.”
McKee, chief quality and safety officer at UNMH, said those who catch COVID-19 after vaccination are less likely to transmit the disease and their symptoms don’t last as long. They have a 25-fold reduction, she said, in the chance of hospitalization or death.
“It makes for a very compelling argument to go get vaccinated,” McKee said.
No COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit at UNMH on Thursday, she said, was fully vaccinated.
New Mexico is enduring what some health officials are calling a fourth wave of COVID-19 infections.
That wave could push new cases nationwide to their highest level yet, though hospital executives in New Mexico say the state may not reach those heights given its strong vaccination rate.
About 66.2% of New Mexico adults have completed their vaccination series – 4.2 percentage points higher than the national average. Among younger residents, about 43.4% of New Mexicans 12 to 17 years old have received their shots.
But cases and hospitalizations are surging. Deaths haven’t seen a corresponding increase.
The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Mexico jumped to 385 on Friday – four times as many as a month ago.
The state also reported 871 new cases and nine additional deaths. The statewide coronavirus-related death toll is now 4,472 residents.
Among the new cases reported Friday were 169 infections in Bernalillo County, 114 in Lea County and 11 among people detained by federal agencies at the Otero County Processing Center.
Hospital leaders this week said the composition of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is changing.
“We’re seeing younger, healthier patients come in and sadly pass away from this disease, which is preventable” through vaccines, said Dr. Vesta Sandoval, chief medical officer at Lovelace.
Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said the delta variant is exceptionally contagious. Each person with the disease generally infects six other people, he said, far more than earlier variants.
“The spread – and people impacted – is much worse,” Mitchell said.
None of the COVID-19 vaccines has been authorized yet for kids 11 and under, he said, and some of the COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Presbyterian are children.
“The rest of us have to get vaccinated so they don’t get COVID from us,” he said.