New Mexico keeps its COVID-19 treatments despite federal sweeps

Officials double down on their position against masking requirements as medication supply shortages loom

By: - March 24, 2022 5:00 am

A researcher works in a lab that is developing testing for the COVID-19 coronavirus at Hackensack Meridian Health Center for Discovery and Innovation on Feb. 28, 2020 in Nutley, New Jersey. The facility develops novel therapies for some of the world’s most difficult diseases. (Photo by Kena Betancur / Getty Images)

With congressional funding for COVID protections in jeopardy, the amount of COVID treatments the federal government is sending to state health departments is being reduced by 30%.

The supply of antiviral drugs dwindles as New Mexico’s health authorities have all but abandoned policies to prevent infection, instead putting their hopes into having enough of those medications to help people after they catch the coronavirus.

All unused allocations of COVID treatments were expected to be reclaimed by the federal government starting Saturday if they had not yet been ordered by the states, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

The U.S. Health and Human Services Department, which oversees how treatments are distributed around the country, is is reabsorbing unordered treatments to be divvied up again among the states, said Courtney Lovato, pharmacy director for New Mexico’s Public Health Division.

The state managed to avoid losing its share though, because N.M. health officials coordinated with hospitals and health care providers here to order all of the courses of treatment that had been promised to the state, so there was nothing left for the feds to sweep, she said.

State health leaders told providers about the congressional spending cuts and the planned sweeps, and urged them to order more monoclonal antibodies during the weekly ordering period, she said. They also expanded the number of pharmacies stocking the antiviral pills Molnupiravir and Paxlovid.

After the orders were received, the state worked with Presbyterian to accept the remaining courses allocated to New Mexico so that no monoclonal antibodies were left, Lovato said.

Presbyterian accepted an additional 222 courses of Sotrovimab and 1,040 courses of Bebtelovimab on top of their original order, she said.

Department of Health spokesperson Jodi McGinnis-Porter said New Mexico entered the situation in a strong position with more than seven months’ worth of COVID treatments on hand. But that time frame was calculated based on the number of treatment courses the state has in its stores divided by the number used by New Mexico patients in the second week of March. That number could change as more people are infected.

State officials do not expect that use rate to hold, Lovato said. During the omicron surge — a period of roughly three months — patients in New Mexico used 10,533 courses, she said. Officials are expecting the state’s total supply to increase to 10,932 once a shipment arrives this week, which Lovato said puts the state “in a good position for any potential surge.”

Before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services started pulling back the unordered COVID treatments, the state already had quite a large pool of them, she said, and low positive case rates resulted in few health providers ordering shipments from the state.

Despite no longer offering regular public updates on the pandemic, DOH continues to monitor case counts, inventory and treatment rates weekly, McGinnis-Porter said, and the state could ask for more treatments. First, N.M. would have to use 70% of what it already has, Lovato added. 

“We continue to advocate for congressional approval of additional funds,” McGinnis-Porter said.

For the last several months, the federal government had not been sweeping allocations of COVID therapeutics, Lovato said. Unused courses would remain in the state’s pool and could be allocated to N.M. providers later on. From now on, as Congress hedges on spending more emergency COVID money, sweeps will occur weekly on Saturday.

Supplies that are physically in New Mexico cannot be swept, Lovato said. If providers here do not have the capacity to accept more inventory down the road, the remainder of that week’s unordered allocation would be returned to the national pool. The state would still receive a regularly scheduled allocation the following week.

N.M. doubles down

Officials lifted the state’s indoor mask mandate in February, meaning there is potentially a lot more case spread and a lot more virus out in the air than there was before. At the same time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated the way it calculates the risk level in each county, allowing for far more cases before masking is again recommended.

New Mexico health officials are doubling down on their position that the state will not return to universal masking.

Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said in a news conference on March 11 that the state does not need non-pharmaceutical interventions like universal masking because of vaccines, treatments and better masks on the market should people choose to wear them.

Earlier that day, Scrase said Lovato told state health officials that “federal supplies are starting to increase” based on information she got from the federal government.

According to McGinnis-Porter, Lovato was told that federal supplies were increasing during a weekly “COVID-19 therapeutic update call” hosted by the federal government.

“She was told to anticipate greater availability of COVID oral therapeutics beginning in April,” McGinnis-Porter said.

That turned out to be wrong just five days later when the White House announced the opposite: that without more money from Congress, the federal government wouldn’t be able to keep buying treatments.

“The federal government is unable to purchase additional life-saving monoclonal antibody treatments and will run out of supply to send to states as soon as late May,” according to a statement from the White House.

There are more effects, too. Without the funding, the U.S. will also be forced to scale back payments to health care providers that treat uninsured people for COVID-19. If Congress does not approve more spending, those payments will completely stop in April, according to the White House.

McGinnis-Porter said state health officials are concerned about congressional funding cuts, but the new circumstances do not change the decision-making process on interventions, such as mask requirements. Pressed on whether the threat to treatment supply changes health officials’ thinking at all when it comes to non-pharmaceutical interventions like masking requirements, McGinnis-Porter said it does not.

“This is an evolving situation, and we are adapting to the information that we have available to us,” she said. “We will continue to monitor COVID therapeutics availability. We will continue to take all actions within the state’s power to ensure COVID therapeutic access to New Mexicans.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.