Free-market researchers say New Mexico had poor COVID-19 results

Apr. 18—New Mexico leaders take pride in the state's solid vaccination rate against COVID-19, but a new study done largely by researchers of a free market economic group says the state's overall response to the disease deserves an F.

The study generally reflects better performances by states that kept businesses open and retained in-person school classes during the coronavirus pandemic. Four of the top five performers are solidly Republican states, and the bottom five, including New Mexico and Washington, D.C., tend to vote Democratic.

"We're for economic freedom and less government, for sure," said Stephen Moore, an economist and co-founder of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity. "But this was just basically looking at statistics."

The study, highlighted in a Wall Street Journal article, attempts to show how states' policies affected their economies, schooling and COVID-19 death rates. Moore said the findings show society should have protected the elderly and vulnerable against the disease and allowed the rest of the citizenry to resume normal lives.

Most surprising is the finding New Mexico's COVID-19 death rate, even adjusted for its aging population and high rate of residents with diabetes, ranked 50th of 51 states and Washington, D.C. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration has pointed to the state's comparatively high vaccination rate as evidence of success.

The study's overall assessment included examinations of states' economies, time devoted to in-person schooling and deaths. New Mexico came in 48th overall — 29th in the economy category, 45th in the schooling category and 50th in deaths per 100,000 people category.

Research was conducted by Moore and Phil Kerpen of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity and Casey Mulligan, a University of Chicago economist who worked for a time as chief economist of the Council of Economic Advisers in the administration of former President Donald Trump.

The National Bureau of Economic Research, which identifies itself as a nonpartisan, unbiased economic group that strives for scholarly integrity, published the report. The study is described as a "working paper" that hasn't been peer reviewed and doesn't necessarily reflect the bureau's views.

New Mexico and Lujan Grisham early in the pandemic won national publicity for the state's effective vaccination program. New York Times data shows New Mexico is 14th best in fully vaccinated residents at 71 percent.

The Governor's Office and the state Department of Health were asked to comment on the report. Jodi McGinnis Porter, spokeswoman for the state Health Department, issued a statement late last week saying the data used is "insufficient to reach the conclusions" and is "wholly lacking."

The researchers failed to factor in the state's high populations of Native Americans and Hispanics, who were hard-hit early on, the Health Department said. Further, they failed to consider the state's comparatively high poverty rate and the fact it has 25 percent fewer beds per capita than the national average.

"The Department of Health is incredibly proud of its response to the COVID pandemic," the statement read. It added "we led the nation in vaccination rates when they first became available."

McGinnis Porter said the Governor's Office collaborated with her on the statement.

Dr. Wendy Johnson, chief medical officer at La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe, also questioned the study.

"The report overall uses a lot of cherry-picked data, and it seems like they had conclusions that they kind of wanted to come to," she said.

Johnson said the report associates school closures with negative effects on students. The study cites concerns about their health, learning and their ability to earn later in life because of long stretches of remote classes taken from home.

Johnson said the study doesn't reflect that more than 140,000 children in the nation lost their "caregivers" — generally a parent or grandparent — to COVID-19, according to the National Institutes of Health.

"It's pretty clear that the people who created this report had an agenda," Johnson said of the Committee to Unleash Prosperity's findings. Losing a parent would have a much greater impact on a child's mental health, she said, than having to attend school remotely.

Johnson said it's true in mortality rankings, New Mexico fares poorly. As of Friday, data from the New York Times shows New Mexico 11th from the bottom.

Like the state Health Department, Johnson said researchers didn't consider that state's population makeup, high poverty levels and limited access to health care for many of its residents.

"Because of those vulnerabilities, we were going to be hard hit," she said.

Moore said he wasn't sure what Johnson referred to by cherry-picking. "What we're trying to measure is the policy response," he said. "Did it work or didn't it work?"

He said if there are legitimate criticisms of the report, the authors want to hear them so they can do a better job the next time.

Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a physician and professor of public health at New Mexico State University, said the work "needs to be peer-reviewed by experts in the field" and until that happens, "there will be questions about validity."

Khubchandani wrote in an email no one preferred lockdowns but "they became a worldwide strategy" to buy time as information was gleaned about how the virus behaved.

"The critics of lockdowns, masks, vaccines could be right, but do they have better solutions?" he asked.

The report says "several studies also have found little health benefit of closing schools or businesses," that "in-person workplaces were often safer" and that "efforts to reduce COVID mortality had costly unintended consequences." Among those, Moore said, was damage to children's well-being.

Paul Gessing, president of New Mexico's Rio Grande Foundation, said he had read the report and agreed with it. The foundation is a research group espousing free markets and limited government.

"I think it's a very solid report, and I think the governor has a lot to answer for regarding the pandemic," Gessing said.

Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, chief patient safety officer of Presbyterian Healthcare Services, wrote in an email New Mexico has high rates of underlying health conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

"At Presbyterian, we believe that the extensive collaboration among the State of New Mexico and health care providers across the state allowed us to prevent even greater loss of life, through initiatives like equitable access to life-saving vaccines and COVID-19 treatments," Salvon-Harman wrote.

Moore said the researchers are open to criticism. "Some people might have some legitimate concerns about it," he said. But what is evident, he added, is government should have protected vulnerable people like the elderly and those with underlying health conditions and allowed the rest of society to function normally.

"Somebody's got to show me that all of these mitigation strategies worked," Moore said.