ALBUQUERQUE – It could be well into next year before a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available, but top health officials in New Mexico said Tuesday that they have submitted their plan to the federal government for building the infrastructure, tracking systems and partnerships that will be needed for distribution.
The focus will be on vaccinating health care workers and first responders, then nursing home residents and staff members. They acknowledged that supplies will likely be limited early on and immunizations for the general public would come later.
Health officials outlined New Mexico’s plan for lawmakers amid a surge in infections. Lawmakers had questions about everything from cost and security to whether the state would have to compete for doses as it did for personal protective equipment at the onset of the pandemic.
Dr. Aja Sanzone, a leader of the planning team and medical director of the state’s Infectious Disease Bureau, said officials have estimated that immunity through vaccination would require immunizing about 70% of the population. In New Mexico, that means distributing 2.9 million doses if two doses per person were needed.
“So definitely a heavy lift there. It would be more than twice the amount of annual flu vaccine that we administer,” she said.
A White House-backed initiative called “Operation Warp Speed” is pushing to have a vaccine ready for distribution in the coming months. The government is spending billions of dollars to manufacture vaccines even before they receive U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, thereby cutting the timeline for delivery. FDA officials say the program won’t interfere with their own science-based decisions and that vaccines not meeting the test for approval would be discarded.
Sanzone noted that the FDA in June advised vaccine makers that the federal agency would want to see evidence that vaccines can protect at least 50% of those receiving it.
States had until Oct. 16 to submit their distribution plans to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. New Mexico officials described the plans as “living documents” with gaps that will be filled in as more information is released by the federal government.
“They keep updating us every week,” said Daniel Burke, chief of the Infectious Disease Bureau. “Really, they’re building the plane as we fly it nationally. They’re adding more and more pieces of information, and it’s now really well laid out.”
While there are still some unknowns, he said New Mexico’s plan addresses logistics, communication, data collection and partnerships with pharmacies and community health centers, among other things.
The state Health Department is surveying hospitals, pharmacies and others to identify capacity to administer vaccines. That information is being plugged into an interactive map to help with planning.
One of the biggest challenges will be what Sanzone said is fading public confidence in the development of a vaccine. She said recent survey results suggest there’s growing concern that the regulatory approval process has been politicized.
“So our goal really is to restore public confidence in the safety and efficacy of vaccines. It has to be a top priority,” she said.
State officials also told lawmakers that the vaccine would not be mandated for any group of people.
Like elsewhere, New Mexico’s positivity and spread rates have been increasing. Confirmed cases in the state have topped 43,160 after a string of record-setting days for daily case totals. An additional 590 cases were reported Tuesday, along with another four deaths related to the virus.
Hospitalizations also are four times what they were at the end of September, with more than 300 people currently being treated in hospitals around the state.
Officials with three of the state’s largest health care systems said Monday that if the curve continues its upward trend, hospitals could run out of room and there could be shortages within the health care workforce.