Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – A vaccine against the coronavirus is not publicly available yet.
But with pharmaceutical companies racing to have a vaccine ready by early next year, top New Mexico health officials are already making plans about which state residents could get it first.
A spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday that it’s too early to say whether the vaccine will be mandatory for any certain occupations or groups of people in New Mexico but that it will be strongly recommended for residents deemed to be at high risk.
The Democratic governor appeared to go a step further during a news conference last week, saying that New Mexicans should expect there will be a “mandatory population” for the COVID-19 vaccine.
Specifically, Lujan Grisham said, health care workers, educators, nursing home residents and emergency responders could be among that population, although she said it’s still unclear how widely available the vaccine will be and how effective it will be at preventing the virus.
“We’re going to have to see how much vaccine is available, and I do expect this: I expect there to be a fairly engaged … debate about mandatory populations more than the first responders,” Lujan Grisham said.
Under a 2003 state law, the governor’s administration has the authority to issue vaccine orders during a declared public health emergency.
Those who decline a vaccine for reasons of health, religion or conscience can be ordered to isolate or self-quarantine under the same law.
The Governor’s Office did not directly answer a question Monday about whether the Lujan Grisham administration would invoke that law once the coronavirus vaccine is available.
“While we don’t yet have a vaccine, and there are and will be several unknowns in the short- and midterm future about it, the overall key point is that the more people who get a vaccine, the safer we all are as a group,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said. “That’s going to be the underlying principle here no matter what the vaccine ultimately looks like.”
Sackett also said the state would, as a starting point, use existing recommendations for the flu vaccine to guide the coronavirus vaccine plan.
New Mexico’s Department of Health currently recommends an annual flu vaccine for young children, pregnant women, individuals ages 50 or older and those with chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes and heart disease. It’s also recommended that Native Americans and residents of nursing homes or other long-term care facilities get a flu vaccine every year.
Rep. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, said any state-level attempts to mandate a coronavirus vaccine for certain groups or individuals would likely generate pushback.
“I don’t think the government should be telling people what they have to put in their bodies,” Schmedes, a physician, said in a Monday interview.
However, he said, he would not oppose private nursing homes implementing mandatory vaccine policies for their residents.
A federal plan to help develop, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine – called Operation Warp Speed – aims to provide at least 300 million doses of a vaccine by January.
As part of the operation, the federal government has reportedly doled out more than $10 billion to pharmaceutical companies.
With clinical trials underway, Lujan Grisham suggested that an existing state medical advisory team – whose work is focused on the state’s gating criteria for gradually reopening the economy – could eventually work on the vaccine priority issue.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the state could follow a similar protocol as it did when making standards for which COVID-19 patients might get ventilators in the case of a medical equipment shortage. Such a shortage has not materialized, although 718 New Mexico residents have now died due to complications from the disease.
Meanwhile, although many details – including the cost of administration – about the coronavirus vaccine remain unclear for now, the governor said many New Mexicans would welcome it.
“If it’s widely available, I’m getting a vaccine,” Lujan Grisham said. “I would want my family to get a vaccine. I want them to be as safe as they can now that we have this deadly virus living among us.”