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SANTA FE – Declaring the entire state at high risk, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued an order Friday opening up COVID-19 booster shots to any adult who wants the extra dose.
The expanded eligibility goes a step beyond federal guidelines, which more narrowly limit who qualifies for a booster.
Lujan Grisham cited New Mexico’s crowded hospitals and the unrelenting surge in COVID-19 cases to justify expanding the eligibility.
State health officials this week also expressed concern about waning immunity from the initial round of vaccinations earlier this year.
“I strongly encourage every New Mexican to register for a booster today – we have appointments available and are ready to get shots in arms,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement.
Federal regulators last month authorized booster shots for adults who meet certain criteria, such as working or living in a high-risk setting. The specific guidelines vary depending on a person’s age, underlying conditions, original vaccine and other factors.
Friday’s order declares that the entire state is at high risk of exposure to the virus and that anyone living or working in New Mexico may get a booster dose.
Colorado and California have also expanded eligibility.
In New Mexico, the order comes a day after two major hospital systems activated crisis standards of care – a step that standardizes decision-making when the demand for beds and other resources outstrips the supply. The University of New Mexico and Presbyterian Healthcare Services made the announcement Thursday.
The number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in New Mexico has more than doubled since early August and jumped 65% in the past month alone. The extra patients add strain to the health care system in a state with long-running shortages of doctors and hospital beds.
People who aren’t vaccinated make up 77% of recent hospitalizations, even though they’re less than half the state’s population overall.
“Providing boosters for adults will significantly increase levels of immunity protection across our state – and that’s essential for all of us,” Acting Health Secretary David Scrase, a physician, said in a written statement. “COVID-19 is incredibly opportunistic – and it’s our job to ensure that the virus has fewer and fewer opportunities to spread.”
He and other state health officials earlier this week outlined new research that they said indicates the initial vaccines dip in protection after about five months.
State Sen. Gregg Schmedes, a Tijeras Republican and surgeon, said the crisis standards activated this week reflect staffing shortages, influenced by the state’s own policy choices.
“As patients who delayed care now reach a critical mass,” he said, “our state continues its downward trajectory as this administration doubles down on its failed policies.”
Not playing ‘gatekeeper’
COVID-19 patients are just one factor in the crowded hospitals. Doctors and hospital leaders say they are seeing more patients – and the patients are sicker than usual – from a host of other conditions, perhaps exacerbated by people not seeking their usual care earlier in the pandemic.
Under the new rules, anyone 18 or older who received the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines can get a booster dose six months after their original vaccine series.
The rules aren’t changed for recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. They can get a booster two months after their original shot.
Even before Friday’s order expanding eligibility, New Mexico appeared to be taking a hands-off approach, allowing people to consult with their doctor and decide whether the booster was appropriate.
“The Department of Health is not playing a ‘gatekeeper’ role with regard to boosters,” department spokesman Matt Bieber said Friday morning. “Individuals can review the federal eligibility criteria (we link to it within vaccineNM.org) and talk to their providers about whether a booster is right for them.”
New Mexico reported 508 coronavirus patients in state hospitals Friday – more than double the number as recently as Aug. 10.
The Department of Health also recorded another 21 virus deaths, pushing the official statewide death toll to 5,169 residents.
Nine of the 21 fatalities were adults in their 70s or older. The youngest were a man in his 20s and woman in her 30s, both from Bernalillo County.
About 95% of the deaths over the past four weeks have been individuals who are not fully vaccinated.
The state also reported 3,524 new cases of COVID-19, a two-day total after the state did not issue a report on Veterans Day. People who aren’t fully vaccinated make up about 72% of recent cases.
About 73.5% of New Mexico adults are fully vaccinated, meaning they have completed their original vaccine series. Some 15.5% of the state’s adults have had their booster dose.
The Lujan Grisham administration on Friday also renewed a public health order requiring people to wear masks in indoor public places, even if they’re vaccinated. It includes an exception for eating or drinking.
The order is in effect through at least Dec. 10, making New Mexico one of just six states with a broad requirement for indoor masks, according to AARP.
Dr. Denise Gonzales, medical director at Presbyterian, urged New Mexicans in an online town hall Friday to wear masks indoors, wash their hands regularly and practice social distancing when appropriate.
“All of these things are simple to do,” she said. “I know it seems like a hassle sometimes, but it truly does work.”