With New Mexico ranked near the top nationwide for distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, state health officials announced a new plan Thursday intended to improve equity in allocation, distribution and access for state residents.
As daily caseloads in New Mexico trend downward and public health restrictions have been eased in many counties, health officials said the new plan will target vaccination efforts in communities that have been seeing higher rates of COVID-19 cases and those that are more vulnerable to the coronavirus due to poverty and other socioeconomic factors.
“We want to vaccinate New Mexicans efficiently and equitably,” state Health Department Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said Thursday during an online news conference. “We are targeting weekly equity allocations to the most vulnerable and exposed communities. We are focusing on reducing morbidity and mortality and reducing viral spread.”
Collins said the state will bring on new providers to meet the needs of underserved communities and use mobile vaccination teams to administer doses to those in areas with fewer health resources.
The Department of Health also announced it will increase vaccinations for seniors by more than 10 percent over the next two weeks.
To date, more than 520,000 doses have been administered across New Mexico, according to the Health Department. More than 20 percent of New Mexicans 16 and over have been partially vaccinated, and more than 10 percent in that category have been fully vaccinated.
The state ranked first in the country on Thursday in the percentage of distributed vaccine doses that have been administered at 90.92 percent, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccine distribution tracker.
Collins said the state and country should receive more good vaccination news soon, as the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine may be approved by the Food and Drug Administration by as early as this weekend.
The Johnson & Johnson shot would be the third vaccine to be cleared by the FDA, after Pfizer’s and Moderna’s. Officials say the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would be easier to distribute to rural areas because it doesn’t require ultracold storage for transportation.
There have been isolated reports of available vaccines going to people outside the designated groups in phases 1A and 1B of distribution, which are supposed to include health care workers, residents of long-term care facilities, people 75 and over, and people 16 and over who are at risk of COVID-19 complications.
Speaking during Thursday’s news conference, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said those instances with vaccine providers have been rare but haven’t gone unnoticed.
“We have to be fair and equitable in those efforts, and that means providers have to do it in that way,” Lujan Grisham said. “The second we learn, and we have, that there are problems, there are significant accountability measures.”
Health officials credited the vaccination efforts and continued public safety measures such as mask-wearing and social distancing for a continued decline in case numbers.
On Thursday, the state reported 299 new cases and 13 additional deaths due to COVID-19. Hospitalizations were at 245.
The statewide positivity rate as of Tuesday was 3.7 percent, well below the target of 5 percent. Every county in the state had a positivity rate below 10 percent.
“We are on the road to recovery,” Lujan Grisham said. “This is exactly where we deserve to be, given our hard work, and it’s where we need to be to get to as close to normal as you can, pre-COVID.”
The trend of lower case numbers prompted the state on Wednesday to modify its red-to-green color-coded system for determining public health restrictions.
Counties with case counts below 8 per 100,000 residents and positivity rates below 5 percent for consecutive two-week periods will achieve turquoise status and be allowed to have all businesses operate indoors at some capacity. That includes bars, theaters and other event venues.
Catron, Harding, Sierra and Union counties will be in the turquoise category for at least the next two weeks.
Only four counties — Doña Ana, Eddy, McKinley and Otero — remain in the highest-risk level (red), down from 14 counties two weeks ago.
Lujan Grisham said current trends have her hopeful that spring and summer activities, including youth sports and outdoor markets, could be resumed. But she added New Mexicans must remain vigilant and dedicated to the public health measures that are set in place.
“I know not every frustration is over,” Lujan Grisham said. “I know that not every question or hesitation is resolved, but it should feel like it’s happening much faster now that it has over the last year.”