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As immunity wanes, New Mexico pushes vaccines and boosters

A sign greets visitors in March at a vaccination clinic at Kewa Pueblo, N.M. Over the last four weeks, more than one-quarter of the new COVID-19 cases reported were among vaccinated people. (Susan Montoya Bryan/Associated Press file)

ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico was among the first states out of the gate when the COVID-19 vaccine push began. Now, top health officials say it looks like the state is among the first to see immunity from the shots wane.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said Wednesday during a briefing that waning immunity is among a long list of possible reasons the state is stuck on what officials described as an uncomfortable plateau. More than 72% of adults in the state are vaccinated and a mask mandate remains in effect for public indoor spaces but cases have yet to trend downward.

In a handful of New Mexico counties, state data shows about 4 out of 5 people are fully vaccinated and yet the rate of spread within those communities remains at unacceptably high levels. The data also shows that more than one-quarter of the new COVID-19 cases reported over the last four weeks were among vaccinated people, a number that is expected to rise as vaccine immunity wanes.

“We don't know everything and it’s become a real challenge,” Scrase said. “I was thinking I was sort of bulletproof when I was vaccinated. I don’t think that anymore. I got my booster, and as sort of my civic duty, I’m still being twice as careful.”

The other factor, he said, is the delta variant is more infectious than other strains because the virus’ ability to find a new person to infect is very efficient. He called it a formidable foe.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross said health officials were talking early on about the magic number that needed to be hit for herd immunity. She said that number is elusive and that New Mexico obviously hasn’t reached it. She repeatedly stressed that more people need to get vaccinated.

Only about 8% of adults have received boosters as that effort recently began. Asked how many people would need to get boosters to see a downtrend in cases, Scrase said officials don’t know. He added that the primary strategy is to get the unvaccinated inoculated.

With nearly 960 cases reported Wednesday and another 15 deaths logged, officials said they don’t expect New Mexico’s public health mandates to be relaxed any time soon.

Scrase also said there has been no discussion about whether boosters would have to be mandated at some point. He explained that officials would be “super careful” about considering any changes when it comes to defining what it means to be fully vaccinated and would have to start “at the ground up and really reconsider the pros and cons of those kinds of decisions.”

State health officials also acknowledged that the virus is sure to mutate and that the vaccination strategy over time will have to chase those mutations.

“We’re trying to find a way to live with this virus until we find a better way to completely eradicate it,” Scrase said.