ALBUQUERQUE >> Despite having one of the highest poverty rates in the country, New Mexico is surging past states with far more resources in the race to achieve herd immunity against the coronavirus.
After New Mexico put into motion one of the most efficient vaccine rollouts in the United States, more than 57% of its adult population has now received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Hampshire is the only state with a higher vaccination rate. Nearly 38% of New Mexico adults are fully vaccinated, more than any other state.
The feat is providing some relief in a state where Hispanic and Native American residents — groups that have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus — together account for 60% of the population. Going into the pandemic with a dearth of financial resources compared with richer states, and vulnerabilities like having fewer hospital beds per capita than nearly every other state, the authorities in New Mexico saw the vaccine as their most powerful weapon to stave off an even more harrowing crisis.
“It was super important for us to get it right because we are a more resource-challenged location,” said Dr. Meghan Brett, an epidemiologist at University of New Mexico Hospital.
Infectious-disease experts attribute New Mexico’s vaccine success to a combination of homegrown technological expertise, cooperation between state and local agencies and a focus by elected officials on combating the virus.
Since vaccines began rolling out in December, new cases of the coronavirus in New Mexico have plunged to fewer than 200 a day from nearly 2,000. Deaths have declined to fewer than five a day from an average of more than 35. In the state’s nursing homes and assisted-care facilities, the average number of deaths each day has fallen from 10 to fewer than one.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat and former state health secretary, set the tone of New Mexico’s pandemic response over the past year by adopting significant social distancing measures from the start of the crisis, despite fierce opposition from critics. Many of those restrictions, such as mask mandates, remain in place.
Opinion surveys have shown broad support for the governor’s actions. Protests against her policies have not been as contentious as those in other states, though they have grown into a recurring feature of New Mexico’s politics over the past year. It is common to drive past storefronts in parts of the state with signs that proclaim “No MLG.”
“She’s done a really good job at managing her optics, and that’s what politicians do these days,” said Matt Simonds, the founder of an Albuquerque distillery and brewery that went out of business after social distancing restrictions were introduced, costing 11 people their jobs. Simonds said he blamed Lujan Grisham and her administration for policies that have taken a toll on his well-being.
“I’ve gained 30 pounds in the last year because of stress eating, my blood pressure and cholesterol are nowhere where they should be and psychologically I’m not in a good place,” Simonds said.
Lujan Grisham has said that she had little choice but to move aggressively against the virus, citing vulnerabilities like New Mexico’s rapidly aging population, shortage of hospital beds and sky-high numbers of residents with underlying medical conditions, like chronic liver disease.
“New Mexico’s foundational health disparities compel us to think differently than some other states with regard to pandemic response,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “I fully believe New Mexico can be the first state to reach herd immunity and be the first to begin operating in the new post-pandemic ‘normal’ the right way, the safe way.”
Before vaccines began getting administered last year, Before vaccines began getting administered last year, Lujan Grisham mobilized the New Mexico National Guard and Civil Air Patrol, whose pandemic-related missions include operating a large vaccine distribution center in Albuquerque and staffing drive-through testing sites. From the start, the authorities have made both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines available in roughly equal proportions across the state, accounting for a large majority of doses administered.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, on the other hand, has accounted for about 3% of administered doses in the state. Recent reports about six cases of extremely rare blood clots led federal officials to advise pausing distribution of that vaccine, guidance a spokesperson for the state health department said New Mexico would follow, which could slow some of the state’s efforts to increase its rate.
In devising its vaccine distribution plan many months ago, the health department also turned to Real Time Solutions, a small software company in Albuquerque. While other states adopted piecemeal registration approaches, resulting in chaotic rollouts, Real Time set up a centralized vaccine portal for all residents to sign up for shots.
Big challenges persist during a pandemic, including the threat of new variants and disparities in vaccine acceptance in some communities. According to the health department, Hispanics and African Americans in New Mexico remain less likely to get the vaccine than Anglos, as non-Hispanic whites are known in the state.
But Native Americans in New Mexico, who have endured some of the most severe rural outbreaks during the pandemic, are getting the vaccine at close to the same rate as Anglos in the state. In some instances, tribal nations have done such a thorough job of vaccinating their own citizens that they have begun administering doses to people from neighboring communities, providing another boost to New Mexico’s overall vaccination rate.
Health experts say somewhere between 70%-90% of people in a society need to be vaccinated to arrive at herd immunity, a situation in which most of a population is immune to an infectious disease, providing indirect protection to those who are not immune. With less than 40% of its residents fully vaccinated, New Mexico still has a long road ahead to reach that point.
As vaccinations continue — the state recently made anyone 16 and older eligible — epidemiologists in New Mexico are debating whether some form of herd immunity could be achieved in the state in the coming months, and what that could look like.
“It’s still quite early to know when herd immunity in the state could potentially happen,” said Sara del Valle, a mathematical epidemiologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory who is part of a team that meets weekly with the state health department.
Del Valle, who said she was impressed by how public health officials took the team’s recommendations “very seriously,” nevertheless cited challenges ahead such as disparities in vaccine acceptance in parts of the state.
But, in comparing the fight against COVID-19 to the battle to eradicate smallpox, del Valle said “islands of herd immunity” in New Mexico could start emerging in places with exceptionally high vaccination rates, accompanied by “islands of outbreaks” in areas where the authorities could move swiftly to prevent the virus from spreading.
Some of the discrepancies reflect the state’s political and cultural fissures. Vaccination rates are much higher in some heavily Democratic parts of the state than in conservative bastions, like oil-rich southeast New Mexico, which leans Republican.