NM won’t require COVID-19 vaccines for school attendance

Eddie Boylan, 9, gets a COVID-19 vaccine dose at a Santa Fe health clinic in this November 2021 file photo. A state vaccine advisory committee has recommended that students attending public schools get the vaccine, but has stopped short of pushing for it to be added to list of required immunizations for the coming school year. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

SANTA FE — A New Mexico vaccine advisory committee has recommended that students attending public schools statewide should be vaccinated against COVID-19, but stopped short of seeking to add the vaccine to the state’s list of required immunizations.

The panel’s recommendations are expected to be adopted by a top state health official in the coming weeks and would take effect for the school year that starts in August 2023.

Vaccine mandates have emerged as a hotly-debated issue during the pandemic, and a recent vote by a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory panel to add the COVID-19 vaccines to next year’s recommended immunization schedules for adults and children ignited political scrutiny over how states would respond.

So far, however, California is the only state that has adopted the COVID-19 vaccine to the list of required immunizations for in-person school attendance, according to the National Academy for State Health Policy.

New Mexico currently has state-required immunizations for polio, hepatitis B and several other diseases in order for students to attend schools, with some allowable exemptions.

Those include a medical exemption that requires a physician’s certification, a religious exemption that requires a written affirmation from a religious leader and a religious exemption that parents or legal guardians can submit.

While a state vaccine advisory committee, whose members include physicians, school nurses and education officials, recommended this month making minor changes to the state’s existing list of required immunizations, they did not recommend adding any new vaccinations.

Acting state Health Secretary David Scrase, who will make the final decision on whether to adopt the committee’s recommendations, said Wednesday that vaccinating children against the flu and COVID-19 would help prevent disease spread and illness, even if they’re not mandatory.

“DOH has never required vaccinations for viral respiratory illnesses for school children, but we do encourage them this year as we are seeing an influx of young children getting sick with different viruses including RSV, flu and COVID-19 and hospital pediatric units are above capacity,” Scrase said in a statement.

Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, who last month urged Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to make her stance on the issue public, said Wednesday he was relieved by the state advisory committee’s recommendations.

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“Parental rights in healthcare decisions must be protected and I applaud the Department of Health for opting against an unethical and unnecessary change to the vaccination list,” said Schmedes, an ear, nose and throat doctor who has opposed face mask mandates during the pandemic, including for lawmakers.

Though COVID-19 vaccines are now available for children in all groups, some parents and guardians have been reluctant to get the shots for their kids.

As of this week, roughly 61% of New Mexico children between the ages of 12 and 17 had completed their initial series of vaccine doses, according to state Department of Health data. Among children between the ages of 5 and 11, only about 33% were fully vaccinated.

In comparison, slightly more than 80% of New Mexico adults age 18 and older had received their primary series of COVID-19 vaccinations, according to DOH data.

While New Mexico has recorded more than 8,600 deaths to COVID-19, the majority of those deaths have been individuals age 65 and older, many with underlying health issues.

Since the pandemic hit the state in March 2020, a total of 12 deaths of children under age 18 have been reported in New Mexico, according to DOH data.