New Mexico to consider COVID-19 vaccine mandate for schoolchildren

Oct. 25—A little-known advisory committee for the state Department of Health is about to be thrown into the spotlight as it takes up recommending whether to mandate the COVID-19 vaccine for public school students.

While the Vaccine Advisory Committee isn't scheduled to meet until next month, its work is turning into an election year issue in the hotly contested governor's race.

Last week, Sen. Gregg Schmedes, R-Tijeras, penned a letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking whether she supported mandating the COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren.

"A prompt and precise response to this question would be appreciated," Schmedes wrote in the letter to Lujan Grisham, a Democrat running for reelection against Republican Mark Ronchetti.

Schmedes said Monday he has yet to receive a response from the governor.

He also said his letter to Lujan Grisham was "absolutely" linked to the governor's race. He noted other governors across the country have made their stances known after a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee recommended adding the COVID-19 vaccine to immunization schedules. New Mexico's Vaccine Advisory Committee will consider the CDC recommendation in its review.

"This is an incredibly personal medical choice for our children, for our parents, and I think that this is something that people would cast their votes accordingly," Schmedes said. "The people of New Mexico, the parents of New Mexico, need to know where the governor stands."

Ronchetti's campaign did not return messages seeking comment.

Nora Meyers Sackett, Lujan Grisham's press secretary, did not answer when asked whether the governor supports a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for school children.

Sackett instead said the advisory committee's annual review doesn't include the governor.

"The review and recommendation process, which occurs every year, is based on scientific evidence and expert analysis and is independent of the governor's office," Sackett wrote in an email.

Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, said the advisory committee includes department staff members, the state epidemiologist, school nurses and pediatricians, among others.

"The [committee] will submit its recommendations to the DOH cabinet secretary for final decision," McGinnis Porter wrote in an email.

The advisory committee recommended the HPV vaccine for the 2021 school-entry program for seventh graders, but former Department of Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel didn't sign off on the recommendation and instead said the vaccine would be strongly recommended — a scenario that could reemerge with the COVID-19 vaccine.

Schmedes said the decision should be left to parents,.

"Parents should have the right to choose," he said. "Parents should have the right to make medical decisions for their children."

Schmedes also said New Mexico parents have already made their intentions clear. About 20 percent of children in the state between 5 and 11 years old have received their "primary series" and booster shot.

"This vaccine is ample," he said. "It is widely available and yet you see what decision they're making."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.