Boosters pushed by state officials amid virus surge - Albuquerque Journal

Boosters pushed by state officials amid virus surge

Xavier Ramirez, 7, get his COVID-19 vaccine on Tuesday from Nubia Rodriguez, a medical assistant at La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe. Federal officials last week gave final approval to giving vaccine shots to children ages 5 to 11 and more than 1,300 New Mexico kids in the age range had already gotten their first doses as of Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Bracing as new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spike once again, New Mexico health officials laid out new research Wednesday suggesting vaccines show a dip in protection after about five months.

Acting state Health Secretary David Scrase said the waning immunity provided by COVID-19 vaccines underscores the importance of getting booster doses in a state in which about 40% of residents remain unvaccinated – including children younger than 5 who are still ineligible for vaccines.

He also said New Mexico’s face mask mandate for indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status, will remain in place under a revised state public health order set to be released Friday.

“We’re on the way up and this is not the time to relax public health orders,” said Scrase, who said reimposing stricter measures like business capacity limits and remote learning for New Mexico public schools are not being considered and will not be included in the revised public health order.

Despite being one of just six states with an indoor mask requirement, New Mexico’s number of new COVID-19 cases has surged over the last week, with infection levels statewide reaching their highest point since January and the state’s test positivity rate recently reaching 11.8%.

The number of hospitalizations related to the virus has also increased, with state health officials reporting 490 hospitalizations on Wednesday – up from 419 individuals hospitalized a week earlier.

That’s prompted criticism about the state’s approach to the pandemic, with the Republican Party of New Mexico saying this week Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic was “not working.”

However, Scrase and other top state health officials said during a Wednesday briefing with reporters that other parts of the United States – and the world – are also struggling with rising case rates due to the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

That includes neighboring states like Colorado, which this week reactivated its crisis standards of care for hospitals and other health care facilities. One New Mexico hospital – The San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington – has declared crisis standards of care in order to get more staffing flexibility and other hospitals are considering doing likewise after the state reauthorized such steps last month, Scrase said.

Part of the increase in cases could be due to a rise in “breakthrough” cases among vaccinated individuals, with New Mexico Department of Health data showing the average time between a last vaccine shot and a positive test result in such cases is roughly 163 days – or just over five months’ time. But while pushing for more New Mexicans to get booster doses, state health officials have also insisted initial COVID-19 vaccine shots reduce individuals’ risk of serious health symptoms and death.

“We believe the vaccine still is effective, even though vaccinated individuals are getting infections,” Scrase said.

During a four-week period that ended Monday, unvaccinated individuals made up 71.6% of new confirmed cases and about 77% of those hospitalized due to the virus, according to DOH data.

A total of 117 of the 123 deaths during that time period – or roughly 95% – were unvaccinated people, while six of those who died were fully vaccinated.

Another driving factor behind New Mexico’s latest virus surge could be a general public that’s become increasingly lax when it comes to social distancing and other practices, state health officials said Wednesday.

Christine Ross, New Mexico’s state epidemiologist, said there’s been an increase in large gatherings and travel compared to a year ago. “There are certainly more opportunities for the virus to transmit,” Ross said.

Health officials have also noticed the trend, with Jasmin Milz Holmstrup, the chief development officer at La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, saying many local residents are not being as careful as they were during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

“It seems like people have let their guard down,” Holmstrup said.

Some New Mexicans have also let their masks down – based on photos from sporting events and other activities – but Scrase said it’s impossible for New Mexico officials to enforce every single face mask violation.

He did say the Department of Health has continued to send out letters warning of possible $5,000 fines for those who violate the public health order. One such warning was sent recently to Curry County commissioners in eastern New Mexico.

A total of 5,148 statewide deaths have been linked to COVID-19 since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March 2020. Thirteen additional deaths were reported Wednesday, including four individuals from Otero County in the southern part of the state.

While rising COVID-19 case levels could portend another difficult winter, state health officials said the approval of the COVID-19 vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 is a promising development that could reduce virus spread across New Mexico.

Since final federal approval was given last week, more than 1,300 children in the age range statewide had received at least one vaccine dose, according to state DOH data. That figure could actually be even higher due to reporting gaps.

Ultimately, health officials hope the vaccination rate among younger children at least reaches the rate of residents age 12 to 17 who have gotten vaccinated – about 55% of kids in that age range had received all shots necessary to be fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.

While children who test positive for COVID-19 do not generally have the same health risks as elderly residents, 304 New Mexico residents younger than 18 have been hospitalized due to the virus and five have died, according to DOH data.

Brothers Xavier and Roman Ramirez got their first shots this week at a Santa Fe health clinic, with their grandfather David Findley looking on.

“Just take a deep breath and wiggle your toes,” Xavier, 7, told his little brother, age 6, who was crying in anticipation of getting the shot.

After seeing both his grandsons get vaccinated, Findley said he felt a big sense of relief. “I prayed a long time for this to come,” he said.

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