Up to 188,000 more New Mexicans are expected to be eligible for COVID-19 inoculations as soon as next week, following the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s emergency authorization Friday of the Pfizer vaccine for children ages 5 to 11.
The next step: approval by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New Mexico’s Medical Advisory Team would need to give its green light as well.
The state Department of Health expects to have 60,000 doses for kids ready to go out to pharmacies and doctors as soon as the authorization process is complete. Kids would need to wait 21 days after a first dose to receive the second shot.
“There are still multiple steps involved here,” spokesman David Morgan said. “We expect to be able to start vaccinating kids next week sometime. … Once we get the CDC go-ahead, it’s historically a quick turnaround.”
Hilario “Larry” Chavez, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, welcomed Friday’s news. “I think, first and foremost, this has the potential to save additional lives,” he said. “Not just for the age group of 12 and under but also adults.”
Much of the time, he said, students are contracting COVID-19 outside the classroom and bringing it into their classrooms. An increase in vaccinated students could help guarantee more students are able to continue learning in the classroom — and avoid quarantining — when a case emerges.
The district expects to collaborate with the Department of Health to offer vaccine clinics at school sites for kids, he added.
State Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said an approved vaccine for kids as young as 5 would be a “game changer” in public schools. It’s too soon to tell whether child vaccinations will lead to changes in COVID-19 protocols in public schools, she said, although it’s likely parents will see school-based vaccination clinics to expedite inoculations.
In July, then-Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins told lawmakers that until vaccines have “regular use” approval, it’s unlikely the state will mandate them for students. Morgan said the stance has not changed.
Santa Fe Public Schools now has no vaccine requirements for students or staff. While the local teachers union has called for a staff mandate, Chavez said the issue has not been discussed among administrators in recent weeks. In September, the district reported 93 percent of preschool and elementary school teachers were fully vaccinated.
Staff members who remain unvaccinated for personal or health reasons are required to undergo weekly COVID-19 testing under state guidelines.
The district also offers an optional weekly testing program for unvaccinated students participating in after-school activities.
State data shows children ages 12 to 15 — who were cleared for the Pfizer vaccine in May — have the lowest COVID-19 vaccination rate of all New Mexicans currently eligible to receive the vaccine. Slightly more than 52 percent of kids in that group have gotten both doses.
Roughly 59 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds in the state are vaccinated.
About 6 percent of New Mexico’s COVID-19 cases have been in kids ages 5 to 11, state data shows. With a total state caseload of more 275,000, that means New Mexico has had more than 16,000 child cases since March 2020. And while most children experience mild symptoms of the illness, nearly 300 children have been hospitalized for COVID-19 and five have died, according to pediatric reports from the Department of Health.
A panel of FDA experts who recommended approval of the Pfizer vaccine for kids earlier this week pointed to data from the company’s trial showing it was 90 percent effective against symptoms of COVID-19 for the age group.
Alexandra Cvijanovich, president of the New Mexico Pediatric Society, noted the also study indicated vaccine side effects were lower in that age group than in older patients, possibly because kids have “robust” immune systems.
“People should talk to their pediatricians if they have questions about the vaccine or a health issue their particular child has. Just ask,” she said. “Be reassured we have four systems in place to monitor side effects.”
Cvijanovich said some parents may be concerned the vaccine is more dangerous for kids because of the length of time it took for approval. She said that’s not the case.
“To me, it’s reassuring they took the time to figure out what the lowest dose was that’s still effective for this age group to try and minimize side effects and exposures,” she said.