Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – After steadily increasing for more than a month, the number of confirmed new coronavirus cases announced daily across New Mexico has leveled off over the past week or so, based on a rolling average of new infections.
And in some counties, including Bernalillo County, the number of new cases has dropped from earlier this month.
But state officials say it’s too early to say whether that means the COVID-19 outbreak might be plateauing – and insist social distancing measures can’t be relaxed yet.
“The key fact here is that a flatter curve doesn’t mean the state or any specific county is out of the woods – it means what people are doing is working and must keep it up,” state Human Services Department spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis-Porter told the Journal.
She also said the point of a slower infection rate is to make sure hospitals are not overwhelmed by a massive influx of serious COVID-19 cases.
But some state lawmakers say the recent case trends show the efforts of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to slow the spread of the coronavirus have been effective – and that it’s time to start looking ahead.
“Either the models were wrong, or we did an even better job than we thought we could” in minimizing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations, said Sen. Mark Moores, R-Albuquerque.
“This is the time for the governor to show leadership about how we slowly reopen the economy,” Moores added.
Some states have, in recent days, begun announcing plans to gradually lift state-ordered closures if certain criteria are met. For example, in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis on Monday said that state’s stay-at-home order will be allowed to expire next week, allowing a gradual reopening of nonessential businesses and permitting elective surgical procedures.
Lujan Grisham has not unveiled any such blueprint for New Mexico, though details could be rolled out in the coming days.
To date, 65 people have died due to COVID-19 across New Mexico. That figure includes seven additional deaths that were reported Tuesday, including four more elderly residents of an Albuquerque senior living facility that has been a hot spot for infection rates among both residents and staffers alike.
In all, at least 15 residents at La Vida Llena have died of complications from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Meanwhile, as of Tuesday, there were 119 people hospitalized around the state due to serious coronavirus symptoms.
There were also 529 individuals designated by the state Department of Health as having recovered from the disease, meaning more than 25% of the 2,072 people who tested positive for the coronavirus have made a full recovery.
New Mexico’s seven-day rolling average of new cases was 95.7 cases per day on Tuesday, according to a Journal analysis of data released by the state Department of Health.
Confirmed cases of coronavirus around the state had been steadily increasing since the state’s first case was announced March 11. But since April 13, the rolling average bounced from the mid-90s to the mid-80s and back.
And those rates would be declining if McKinley and San Juan counties’ numbers were not included. Infection clusters on the Navajo Nation have caused case numbers to surge in several northwestern New Mexico counties in recent days and weeks.
On Tuesday, 66 of the 103 new confirmed cases announced by state health officials were from McKinley and San Juan counties. Those two counties make up less than 11% of the state’s overall population, according to 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Meanwhile, the number of new cases in some of the state’s larger counties has gone down.
In Bernalillo County, there were an average of 18 new coronavirus cases announced per day for a seven-day time period that ended Tuesday. During the previous week, the average number of new cases in the state’s most populous county had been 23.1 cases per day.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase has cited encouraging trends in several counties, including Bernalillo and Santa Fe,with regard to flattening the infection curve.
But he and other state officials also say the state has to stay the course – largely by staying at home – to remain on that trajectory.
“It’s important to note that, in general, what we are seeing in our current numbers reflects people’s behavior from 10 to 14 days ago, the period in which people may be infected and then show symptoms,” McGinnis-Porter told the Journal.
Higher risk for elderly
The coronavirus has been most deadly for older New Mexicans – matching the broader trend throughout the world.
In New Mexico, more than two-thirds of the coronavirus deaths are adults older than 70, according to a Journal analysis of data released through Tuesday. The remaining one-third are people in their 30s through 60s.
Geographically, the fatality rate is highest in the northwestern New Mexico, where an outbreak has hit the Navajo Nation.
San Juan County, in the far northwestern part of the state, has endured nearly 14 deaths per 100,000 people – a rate well over four times higher than the state overall. The rate in neighboring McKinley County is 8 deaths, and the state average is about three deaths for every 100,000 people.
In a recent virtual town hall, Scrase said that any death is devastating but that COVID-19 is particularly tough on families.
“It’s even more devastating when it’s more sudden or after an illness like this that can proceed so rapidly,” he said this week in a town hall aired by New Mexico PBS.