COVID vaccine mandates were first introduced in the U.S. over the summer, as slowing vaccination rates coupled with the fast-spreading Delta variant brought about a brutal wave of the virus. In July, various state governors announced new requirements for state employees, and in August, major companies like Tyson and Goldman Sachs unveiled mandates of their own. But a new variant of the virus has emerged, helping to push cases back up this winter. Weekly new cases in the U.S. are reaching highs of more than 125,000, when weekly averages in October and November were only around 60,000 to 90,000, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The new Omicron variant is spreading rapidly, and emerging research shows that it evades vaccine protection more than any previous version of the virus, leading some officials to reevaluate their vaccine mandates.
On Dec. 2, New Mexico’s Office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that it would be expanding one of its existing vaccine requirements to include a booster dose. According to the updated public health order, state employees who work in higher-risk environments, including workers in health care and congregate-care settings, must receive their booster no later than Jan. 17, if they are eligible for it.
According to the CDC, vaccinated individuals are eligible for an additional shot if it has been at least six months since their second shot of an mRNA vaccine or two months since their single Johnson & Johnson dose. New Mexico’s new public health order, which was amended by Acting Health Secretary David R. Scrase, MD, will require that workers who are not yet eligible by the January deadline get a booster within four weeks of becoming eligible.
“New Mexico is doing well with boosters, better than the national average, but we still must do better,” Scrase said in a statement. “Our hospitals are overfull, and the spread of the virus continues to exacerbate the issue. New Mexico isn’t an island, and we can’t prevent the new variant from arriving here. So we must defend ourselves with the tools we know to work: Masks, vaccines, and personal decisions that serve to protect the collective well-being.”
New Mexico is the first state to require booster shots for state employees, according to Stateline. But this type of mandate has been implemented in other sectors. Several U.S. universities have announced booster requirements ahead of the spring semester and at least one popular entertainment venue in the country has done the same.
These new mandates are emerging as research shows that the initial vaccines cannot protect well against symptomatic infection with the Omicron variant. While all vaccines still seem to provide a significant level of protection against severe COVID, even from Omicron, only Pfizer and Moderna shots reinforced by a booster appear to have success at stopping infection altogether, The New York Times recently reported.
“The evidence is incontrovertible. Our data is telling us that more than two shots are needed to provide ongoing protection. If we feel like it’s going to save lives and protect people, we do have a bias for early action,” Scrase said. Because New Mexico was one of the fastest states to get people immunized earlier this year, it has become one of the first to see large indicators of immunity falling over time.
“As months went by, we had more and more people further from their vaccinations and more breakthrough cases,” he said. “We are the tip of the spear for more vaccine breakthrough.”
But other state officials have denied that they are considering adding a third dose to existing vaccine mandates. “We don’t anticipate expanding that [vaccine] requirement to include the booster shot,” Hawaii Gov. David Ige recently told Stateline at the Western Governors’ Association winter meeting.
And some virus experts are taking a stance against expanding requirements to include a booster, despite endorsing initial vaccine mandates. “We’ve gone as far as we can on mandates,” Paul Offit, MD, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, told Stateline. “A booster [mandate] is only going to make people more upset: ‘Now they’re telling me I’m not fully vaccinated.'”