Following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Sept. 12 recommendation of updated COVID-19 vaccines for everyone 6 months and older, New Mexico hospital and state officials today held a news conference to reiterate that endorsement and provide information on local resources.
The Food and Drug Administration earlier this week approved and authorized for emergency use Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines updated to include a monovalent (single) component that corresponds to the Omicron variant XBB.1.5.
In keeping with national messaging, doctors from the state’s major hospitals and the state health department advocated for residents to seek out the new COVID-19 vaccine, along with this year’s flu shot and newly available RSV vaccines for children and adults.
Dr. Miranda Durham, the state health department’s medical director, said New Mexico, like the rest of the United States, has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Nonetheless, compared to two years ago around this time, “overall…our hospital admissions remain low and we’d really like to see it stay that way through the winter,” Durham said, “which is really why we’re here talking about the great new vaccines that can help protect us all.”
As Deputy Health Secretary Dr. Laura Parajón told SFR recently, the number of vaccines and boosters one has received previously does not impact eligibility for the new vaccine.
“So whether you’ve had zero COVID vaccines in the past, or you’ve had seven COVID vaccines in the past, it doesn’t matter,” Durham said today. “This COVID vaccine is for you. Getting this year’s COVID vaccine is going to help boost your immunity and protect against the current circulating variants.”
Officials say anyone who has not had a vaccine within the last two months is eligible, although people who have COVID-19 at present could wait a few months as they have gained some immunity from the infection.
Durham said the new vaccines began shipping yesterday and should be in the state by the end of the week with providers “up and running in the next two weeks. So you can go and schedule now.”
While the end of the federal health emergency meant the end of certain free programs, Durham said people should still be able to access COVID-19 vaccines at no cost through insurance reimbursements or the federal Bridge Access Program, whose participants include the state health department, Walgreens, CVS, “lots of local health clinics,” and other participating pharmacies that are still enrolling in the program.
DOH has “retired” its vaccine registration web page, however, so people will need to directly register for vaccines with pharmacies or providers. The state does still provide a vaccine locater map, and its hotline “is still in business,” Durham noted (1-855-600-3453).
Officials also emphasized pairing the new COVID-19 vaccine with this year’s flu shot, which Dr. Meghan Brett, UNM Hospital epidemiologist, said people should get in September of October, to receive protection through flu season. The flu vaccines being offered this year, Brett said, are all quadrivalent, meaning “they have four flu strains in them: two A and two B, and that offers protection against the main viruses that are circulating.” The CDC recommends people 65 and older receive high-dose or adjuvanted flu shots.
“These stimulate a higher immune response in patients who are who are older,” Brett said. “However, if those are not available, then it’s important just to get the flu vaccine itself that’s…available.”
Another key update for this year, she noted, is the flu vaccine is now safe for people with any level of allergies to eggs. According to the CDC, “studies that have examined the use of both the nasal spray vaccine and flu shots in egg-allergic and non-egg-allergic patients indicate that severe allergic reactions in people with egg allergies are unlikely.”
Last fall, health officials warned that rising COVID-19, flu and Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV) cases were creating a “triple-threat” to the state’s hospitals. RSV normally appears in late fall and extends through winter, UNM Children’s Hospital Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anna Duran said. But last year the virus emerged early, “and with that came a lot of very sick children,” she said.
Officials project a normal RSV timeline this year: beginning in November and ending in early March. Nonetheless, the virus remains very contagious and its symptoms resemble the symptoms for other illnesses: fever, cough congestion. A small population can experience difficulty breathing and dehydration; children with pre-existing medical problems can be at risk for more severe forms of RSV, she said.
The FDA in July approved a new vaccine, Beyfortus (Nirsevimab), for all babies up to 8 months old who are about to enter their first RSV season and for infants between 8 and 19 months who are at high risk of severe infection due to conditions such as being born premature or having a congenital heart condition. The CDC recommended the vaccine last month. Duran said the Beyfortus “will be available to different states coming in October. We are working very hard to have it available at the start of RSV. And we are working with a lot of our other community hospitals to help distribute this to all eligible infants.”
Two new adult RSV vaccinations also are available for patients 60 years and older (Arexvy from GSK and Abrysvo from Pfizer). “RSV can be very dangerous for certain adults, including those with chronic lung conditions such as asthma and COPD, and those with weak immune systems like patients on cancer treatment, or with uncontrolled diabetes,” Presbyterian Healthcare Services Medical Director Dr. Denise Gonzales said, adding that “each year about 100,000 adults over the age of 60 are hospitalized in the US due to RSV.” While most RSV symptoms can be managed at home, Gonzales also cautioned people to be on the lookout for “red flags,” including shortness of breath when walking on a flat surface or chest pain. She also noted several signs of stroke of which people should be aware, confusion, facial droop, weakness in one arm and leg or difficulty talking.
Christus St. Vincent Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Gonzales also offered observations regarding the higher vaccination rates in urban areas versus rural ones, and the tendency for rural hospitals to struggle with staffing and other resources. In turn, he noted, Christus as a regional medical center can easily become overwhelmed with patients from surrounding areas.
“It’s important that we don’t oversaturate our rural community hospitals for illnesses that may be avoidable,” Gonzales said. “This puts a stress on the whole system, but most importantly, it leads to poor clinical outcomes.”
Preventative measures, such as hand-washing, mask-wearing and avoiding crowds help prevent all major respiratory illnesses contributing to respiratory season, he said, “and of course getting vaccinated is the best way to lower your spread of the virus as well as protect you from getting very sick. We don’t know how this variant is going to act in our community. So it’s important that we get vaccinated.”
With health officials now recommending three vaccines, Dr. Vesta Sandoval, chief medical officer for Lovelace Health System, said it’s all the more important to address vaccine hesitancy.
“We know the components of vaccine hesitancy…misinformation that was disseminated about vaccines, not just necessarily COVID vaccine, but many other types of vaccines as well,” she said. But hesitancy can “span the spectrum,” she said and include lack of access to vaccines as well. Wherever the hesitancy falls on the spectrum, she said, the World Health Organization has recognized such hesitancy as a top threat to global health. She encouraged people who are hesitant to seek out “trusted sources” to discuss the vaccines. The bottom line, she said: “These vaccines are safe. We’ve given millions and millions of these vaccines. We know they’re safe. We know that the side effects are very little.” And for people who are reluctant because ”they feel like ‘well, I’m not gonna get sick; I’m healthy,” she returned to a familiar pandemic message: “It could be more about who are you taking that disease home to: your grandparents; people that are vulnerable, that are compromised; your children. You want to get vaccinated so you’re protecting all of New Mexico.”