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SANTA FE – A New Mexico vaccine advisory committee plans to meet next month to consider whether to recommend adding the COVID-19 vaccine – and possibly other immunizations – to the list of required vaccinations for public school students.
A recent vote by a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel to add the COVID-19 vaccines to next year’s recommended immunization schedules for adults and children has reignited debate over the vaccines and led to scrutiny about state-level responses.
Since the advisory panel’s unanimous vote, several Republican governors have announced they would oppose efforts to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for school children.
But a spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that New Mexico’s decision-making on the issue will not be guided by politics, even though the governor’s health secretary, David Scrase, will make the final decision after receiving recommendations from the state advisory committee whose members include physicians, school nurses and education officials.
“The review and recommendation process occurs every year and is based on scientific evidence and expert analysis,” said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett.
She also did not say whether the Democratic governor personally supports a vaccine mandate for children attending schools.
Last year, a top state health official said New Mexico did not plan to make the COVID-19 vaccine mandatory for school attendance. But that was before federal approval was given for several different COVID-19 vaccinations for children under age 12.
“We will not be moving toward requiring the vaccine,” then-Health Secretary Tracie Collins told an interim legislative committee in July 2021.
Though COVID-19 vaccines are now available for children in all groups, some parents and guardians have been reluctant to get the shots for their kids.
As of this week, roughly 61% of New Mexico children between the ages of 12 and 17 had completed their initial series of vaccine doses, according to state Department of Health data. Among children between the ages of 5 and 11, only about 33% were fully vaccinated.
In comparison, nearly 80% of New Mexico adults age 18 and older had received their primary series of COVID-19 vaccinations, according to DOH data.
Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, this week asked Lujan Grisham to clarify her position on the issue, but said Friday he does not expect to receive a detailed response.
“This is a big deal for parents,” said Schmedes, an ear, nose and throat doctor who has opposed face mask mandates during the pandemic, including for lawmakers.
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.
Schmedes, who last year sought unsuccessfully to expand the state’s current vaccine exemptions, said he would try again during the upcoming 60-day legislative session if the COVID-19 vaccine is mandated for public schools.
It’s also possible the COVID-19 vaccines could be recommended by the state, but not required.
While New Mexico has recorded more than 8,600 deaths to COVID-19, the majority of those deaths have been individuals age 65 and older, many with underlying health issues.
Since the pandemic hit the state in March 2020, a total of 11 deaths of children under age 18 have been reported in New Mexico, according to DOH data.
Given those figures, Schmedes said a state-level COVID-19 vaccine requirement to attend public schools would not make sense.
“It poses a greater than zero risk, but a near-zero risk to children,” Schmedes said, referring to the virus.
However, other health experts say the vaccines approved for children are effective in preventing severe illness due to COVID-19 variants, while also helping to reduce virus spread.