Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The top physicians under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are encouraging families to vaccinate their children ages 5 and older against COVID-19 as New Mexico endures one of the highest case rates in the nation.
They also shared plans to expand a pilot program in schools allowing students who have been exposed to COVID-19 – but who aren’t infected – to continue in-person classes, as long as they undergo regular testing for a few days.
The push for vaccination and expanded testing in schools comes as people under 18 make up about one-fourth of New Mexico’s recent cases.
Acting Health Secretary David Scrase and Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajón, both doctors, said the state intends to offer shot clinics at schools and other sites in coming weeks to make it easier for parents to get kids vaccinated.
Vaccination “is going to be another layer that protects our kids in the schools,” Parajón said.
Federal regulators this week cleared a smaller dose of the Pfizer vaccine for children 5 to 11, and New Mexico officials say they have already received the first of three shipments of the shots.
The last allotment should arrive within a week, making 90,000 doses available for kids. There are about 188,000 children ages 5 to 11 in New Mexico, and more doses are expected to be available, depending on demand.
Parajón encouraged parents to be patient over the next week as the supply grows and more slots are available. Appointments can be made through a family’s regular medical provider or on the state website, vaccineNM.org.
Kurt Steinhaus, who leads the Public Education Department, said his agency is also taking steps to help unvaccinated students stay on campus amid the pandemic.
Under a program that will be expanded over the next three to five weeks, schools that participate will allow students who have been exposed to COVID-19 at school – but who have not tested positive – to continue in-person learning.
They will have to be tested one day, three days and five days after exposure – an alternative to a full 10-day quarantine.
The goal, Steinhaus said, is “to provide in-person learning as much as we possibly we can.”
The testing, he said, will happen on campus. Alamogordo is already carrying out a pilot program, Steinhaus said, and other schools are expected to begin similar programs in coming weeks, with help from a $63 million federal grant.
COVID-19 cases are rising in every region of the state. But fatalities appear to have reached a plateau, Scrase said, a rare bit of good news.
Hospitals, nevertheless, remain under stress, Scrase said, especially in Farmington, where an emergency team of medical providers from the federal government will be deployed to help.
Throughout the state, he said, patients who require intensive care are stuck in emergency rooms waiting for a transfer.
“This is a very, very tight situation,” Scrase said.
New Mexico ranks No. 9 in the country for new COVID-19 infections per person over the past seven days, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Five other Mountain West states – including Colorado and Utah – are also among the top 10.
New Mexico’s medical advisory team, Scrase said, is evaluating what might be driving the increase in cases. But they don’t believe schools are a primary factor, he said, partly because of indoor mask requirements and social distancing.
The highly contagious nature of the delta variant, Scrase said, is clearly playing a role in the spread of the disease.
It’s also possible, he said, that New Mexico may be seeing signs of immunity waning from its first waves of vaccinations – something that might pop up in New Mexico earlier than elsewhere because the state vaccinated a higher proportion of its population earlier.
But he didn’t describe waning immunity as a definitive cause.
Whatever the reason, Scrase encouraged any New Mexican who’s eligible for a booster shot to get one.
Residents who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine at least six months ago can get a booster if they are either:
• 65 or older.
• At least 18 and live in a long-term care setting, have certain underlying medical conditions, or work or live in high-risk settings, such as in education, grocery stores and law enforcement.
Eligibility is much broader for people who got the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Anyone 18 and older who got the shot at least two months ago can get a booster.
Scrase suggested he expects federal regulators to expand the booster eligibility in the next few months to anyone who wants one.
“I think we’re going to see a relaxation on booster availability soon – I don’t know when,” Scrase said.
Parajón said the kid-size Pfizer vaccines are safe and effective. Some of the research was done in New Mexico, she said, which may reassure some parents.
Side effects appear to be milder in 5- to 11-year-olds than older recipients of the vaccine, she said.
In New Mexico, children under 18 made up 25.2% of the COVID-19 cases in a recent one-week period, according to a state epidemiology report issued Monday. Pediatric cases account for 16.8% of infections throughout the whole pandemic.
Five children have died and the state has recorded 299 pediatric hospitalizations for COVID-19, according to the epidemiology report.
The state reported 1,166 new cases Wednesday, 419 hospitalizations and 12 additional COVID-19 deaths.
Over the past month, people who aren’t fully vaccinated made up 73% of cases, 79% of hospitalizations and 90% of deaths, even though they are less than half the total state population.