New Mexico’s vaccination pace is accelerating again after a mid-summer slump — welcome news, health care providers say, as hospitals handle a surge in COVID-19 patients.

Vaccinations statewide shot up 30 percent recently, compared to a corresponding period last month, according to the state Department of Health. More than 29,000 doses were administered in a recent 7-day span.

The growth has been especially sharp in some areas. Christus St. Vincent in northern New Mexico administered more than twice as many doses last week as it did during the week of Aug. 1.

“It’s such welcome news for us,” said Dr. Laura Chanchien Parajon, deputy Cabinet secretary at the Department of Health.

The growth came even before federal regulators on Monday granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine — a decision health care administrators say they expect to spur even more vaccinations.

As for the existing increase, Parajon said, the state’s $100 vaccine incentive, concern about the Delta variant and employer mandates are likely factors.

Survey data, she said, also indicates some New Mexicans are opting to get the vaccine now after talking to their primary care provider or a family member.

And with the recent news that booster shots for the Pfizer and Moderna series are recommended about eight months after the second shot of each, Dr. David Scrase, acting cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, said the rampant Delta variant and its effects led to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic, which showed the efficacy of the Pfizer vaccine decreased from 76 to 42 percent and the Moderna vaccine showed a decrease from 86 to 76 percent efficacy.

Spike in hospitalizations

The uptick in vaccinations comes as New Mexico endures a surge in COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations.

The state reported 433 hospitalizations Wednesday — more than double the number from just three weeks ago and the highest total since early February.

New Mexico reported 933 new cases and nine additional deaths on Aug. 27. The official virus-related death toll now stands at 4,497 residents.

Some hospitals reported operating at “well beyond capacity” due to patients needing care for COVID-19 infections and other medical conditions, some of which were exacerbated by people not seeking health care earlier in the pandemic, hospital leaders said.

Every COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at the University of New Mexico Hospital on Aug. 19 was unvaccinated, a UNM official said last week. In a recent four-week stretch, 46 (88.5 percent) of 52 COVID deaths were unvaccinated people.

Scrase said ICU beds throughout the state are beyond capacity, and, “If we could get all of New Mexico to 85 percent (vaccinated), we could avert the coming hospital crisis.”

Significant uptick

The sharp growth in vaccines has kept New Mexico’s vaccination rate ahead of the national average, with more than two-thirds of adults in the state now having completed the series of shots. The Department of Health reported Tuesday that:
• 66.8 percent of New Mexicans 18 and older have completed the vaccine series, or 4.2 percentage points higher than the national average.
• 76.2 percent of adults in New Mexico have received at least one dose.
• 44.5 percent of residents 12 to 17 years old have completed their shots, and 57.6 percent have had at least one shot.

Health care providers have noticed the jump in vaccinations.

Presbyterian Healthcare Services — which operates hospitals in Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and elsewhere — also reported vaccine growth outpacing the 30 percent increase statewide.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, Presbyterian’s chief medical officer, said he is confident that this week’s full federal approval of the Pfizer vaccine will spur more vaccinations.

“This full approval underscores the strong evidence we already have in support of COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy, with more than 200 million Pfizer vaccines administered in the United States alone,” Mitchell said.

He encouraged people to get vaccinated to help stop the spread of COVID-19 as hospitalizations increase.

Scrase said the latest projections predict 1,300-1,500 positive cases a day in what remains this month and in early September, with two-six deaths daily. Scrase pointed out that the latest seven-day average number of COVID-19 cases is increasing in every region of the state.

New Mexico is still offering a mix of incentives and mandates to boost vaccination numbers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has ordered workers at hospitals and nursing homes to get vaccinated — Scrase reported Wednesday that about 80 percent of hospital workers have been vaccinated. State employees and teachers face a choice of vaccination or regular testing.

Los Alamos National Laboratory was among the employers last week to announce a vaccinate mandate for employees and on-site contractors.

Even with this month’s vaccine growth, the pace still isn’t as heavy as it was earlier this year when the demand for doses outstripped the supply.

Pfizer gets full approval

On Tuesday, the New Mexico DOH reminded New Mexicans that the federal Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the Pfizer vaccine for individuals aged 16+. (The vaccine remains on Emergency Use Authorization for individuals 12-15.)

In addition, DOH reminded New Mexicans that individuals who receive a first or second shot of Pfizer or Moderna — or a first-and-only shot of J&J — between Aug. 2-31 are eligible for a $100 incentive.

To receive the incentive, New Mexicans must register at vaccineNM.org by 5 p.m. on Sept. 10.

Individuals can choose to receive their incentive by email, text, or physical mail. Incentives distributed by email or text can only be spent for online purchases. Incentives distributed by physical mail can be spent anywhere, online or offline.

(Dan McKay and Dan Boyd of the Albuquerque Journal contributed to this article.)

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer