New Mexico to re-implement indoor mask mandate; vaccinations required in hospitals, congregate settings
Given the slowing of vaccination rates since a peak several months ago, the governor also announced the state will issue a requirement for all workers in certain medical close-contact congregate settings – including hospitals, nursing homes, juvenile justice facilities, rehabilitation facilities, state correctional facilities and more – to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The state also issued a requirement that all workers at private, public and charter schools in New Mexico either be vaccinated against COVID-19 or otherwise submit to COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis. This policy aligns with the state’s requirement for all state government personnel.
The spread of COVID-19 in New Mexico has increased dramatically in recent weeks, driven by the highly infectious “Delta” variant and primarily unvaccinated populations. State modeling projects that New Mexico will reach 1,000 new daily cases of COVID-19 by the end of August, and as many as 1,000 new daily cases in southeastern New Mexico alone in the weeks after that.
Hospitalizations for COVID-19 in New Mexico have sharply risen to a 6-month high as of Monday, Aug. 16. Hospital leaders, acknowledging some state facilities already reaching or exceeding 100 percent capacity, have recently amplified their calls for unvaccinated New Mexicans to vaccinate and help forestall a projected shortage of hospital resources amid the projected fall surge. New Mexico has one of the lowest numbers of per-capita hospital beds in the U.S., and rising virus hospitalizations create a ripple effect, hospital leaders say, for other individuals who need care for other purposes within the health care system.
Masks and vaccines, the governor said, are the two tools the state will use to protect scarce hospital resources and the state’s ongoing economic recovery: “We all have a role to play,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “No one wants to go backward. No one wants to see our recovery endangered by another – and preventable – surge of serious illness. No one wants a full hospital turning away New Mexicans who need care. So mask up indoors to stop the spread. And vaccinate if you haven’t vaccinated. These two simple steps will protect our health care resources and ensure our economy can continue to rebound.”
Under a public health order issued by Acting Health Secretary David R. Scrase, M.D., the re-implemented mask requirement applies to all individuals aged 2 and older in all indoor public settings — except when eating or drinking.
Masks will be required to everyone in school buildings regardless of vaccination status, which aligns with the most recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Public Education Department has been in the process of updating its toolkit for schools and district personnel.
The indoor mask requirement will be effective Friday, Aug. 20. It will remain in effect until at least September 15. The governor, acting upon the counsel and analysis of the state Medical Advisory Team and state health officials, may decide to extend or lift the requirement as necessary.
Businesses, houses of worship and other entities may enact stricter requirements at their discretion.
That public health order can be found here.
Previously, the state had only recommended that individuals who have been vaccinated resume wearing facemasks in indoor spaces. Unvaccinated individuals have been and remain required to wear facemasks in indoor public settings.
“We all want the pandemic to be over,” said Dr. Scrase. “But the virus has its own timeline. And the virus has mutated. At this stage, the Delta variant makes up virtually 100 percent of new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico. This variant spreads up to four times more rapidly than the virus we were dealing with last year. The good news is that vaccines work in preventing serious illness and death from a COVID-19 infection. The bad news is that the virus is still spreading and seriously harming unvaccinated people, and this means unsustainable strain in our hospital system. A mask helps stop the spread. Please do your part and help New Mexico stay on the right track: Mask up and get your shots.”
While several local governments of note across the U.S. have taken this step in recent weeks, New Mexico is the second state to temporarily reinstitute a blanket mask requirement, after Louisiana. Nevada has implemented a mask mandate for counties with high or substantial COVID-19 transmission.
VACCINES REQUIRED IN HIGH-RISK SETTINGS
Under a separate public health order issued by Secretary Scrase, all workers in New Mexico hospitals and congregate care facilities are required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, with only limited exceptions.
This requirement follows similar mandates for health care workers issued recently by the states of California and Washington.
“Hospital workers,” as defined in the public health order, are all paid and unpaid individuals who work in any public, profit or nonprofit hospital in a setting where care is provided to patients or where patients have access. This includes workers who have the potential for direct or indirect exposure to patients and includes — but is not limited to — nurses, physicians, nursing assistants, technicians, therapists, phlebotomists, pharmacists, students and trainees, contractual staff and those including clerical and security personnel who may not be directly involved in patient care but who could be exposed to infectious agents that can be transmitted in the hospital.
“Congregate care facility workers,” as defined in the public health order, are all paid and unpaid individuals working in nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day cares, hospice facilities, rehabilitation facilities, state correctional facilities, juvenile justice facilities and residential treatment centers or community homes.
Unvaccinated individuals who do not qualify for an exemption must receive their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine within 10 days of Tuesday, Aug. 17, and their second dose, as needed, within 40 days of receiving the first shot. Those individuals must provide documentation to their supervisor or the operator of the facility in which they contract or work.
The limited exemptions for hospital and congregate care facility workers include having a qualifying medical condition recognized by the FDA or CDC as a contra-indication to a COVID-19 vaccine; having a disability requiring separate accommodation; or having a sincerely held religious belief requiring separate accommodation. To be eligible for an exemption, an individual must provide their employer with either a statement from a physician or nurse practitioner validating the need for a medical or disability exemption or a documented request regarding the manner in which the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine conflicts with the religious observance or practice or belief of the individual.
Anyone granted an exemption by the operator of a hospital or congregate care facility must then, under the requirements of the public health order, provide documentation of COVID-19 testing on a weekly basis.
“The safety and health of New Mexico’s seniors is paramount,” said Aging and Long-Term Services Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez. “Many of them have thankfully made the decision to proactively protect themselves and get the vaccine, which is translating into fewer hospital admissions, but COVID is still getting into our state’s long-term care facilities through staff transmission and taking its toll on those who are unvaccinated. We’re seeing hotspots and cases increase across the state, which is why we’re thankful for the leadership of the governor and Secretary Scrase and the measures they’re taking to actively protect our most vulnerable.”
The vaccination requirement also applies to employees of the Office of the Governor.
That public health order can be found here.
VACCINATE-OR-TEST FOR SCHOOL WORKERS
Under that public health order detailing the vaccination requirements for workers in hospitals and congregate settings, the state also outlined a new vaccinate-or-test policy for workers in New Mexico schools.
All school workers in public, private or charter schools who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 or who are unwilling to provide proof of vaccination to their respective supervisors must, effective Monday, Aug. 23, provide proof of a COVID-19 test on a weekly basis.
Gov. Lujan Grisham implemented an identical policy for state government employees through the State Personnel Office earlier this month.
“Our priority is keeping students and staff safe and learning in school buildings,” said Public Education Secretary-Designate Kurt Steinhaus. “We know from experience that in-person learning is the gold standard. Masks are part of that safety strategy, but vaccinations are the best tool, hands down. Because of increasing infections in schools due to the Delta variant, we need to work together to step up our game and focus on COVID safety measures that can keep our schools open for learning.”
VACCINES ARE EFFECTIVE, SAFE AND AVAILABLE
New Mexicans can learn more about the COVID-19 vaccines and schedule an appointment at VaccineNM.org. Through the month of August, any New Mexican receiving a first or second shot of Pfizer or Moderna, or a first-and-only shot of Johnson & Johnson, will receive $100 from the state. To qualify for the incentive, New Mexicans must register at VaccineNM.org.
“We have several effective tools that work to prevent serious illness and death at this stage of this pandemic,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “The two most relevant at this moment are vaccines and facemasks. New Mexico continues to conduct statewide outreach to unvaccinated populations and is still among the nation’s leaders in completing vaccinations. This effort remains paramount. Get your shots. But with a more infectious and more dangerous strain of COVID-19 on the rise here and regionally and nationally, facemasks are once again necessary to ensure the efficacy of the vaccine is not diminished by a mutating virus, and to ensure our hospitals are not overwhelmed by a projected surge of new infections, as has happened and is happening in neighboring states like Texas.”
“I know many New Mexicans who are conscientious about public health and committed to protecting their families and communities have already resumed wearing their facemasks. I sincerely thank you for taking this step and for putting the health and safety of our state first. My belief is that when all of us take this step, out of an abundance of caution, we will ensure that New Mexico is not forced to again restrict any commercial activities in our state. New Mexico’s economic recovery is too important. We cannot risk another unsustainable wave of hospitalizations threatening to overwhelm our health care system.
“I will also note that getting vaccinated is important to protect those of us who cannot yet make that choice – the children under 12 among us, for instance. Our children’s health and safety is something we absolutely cannot take for granted.”