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Virus transmission rate falls in NM

Medical personal test people for coronavirus at Lovelace Hospital in Downtown Albuquerque in May. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal file)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexicans have cut the coronavirus transmission rate almost in half since late March, according to statistical modeling released by Presbyterian Healthcare Services and state officials.

Furthermore, the first two rounds of relaxed business restrictions – on May 1 and May 15 – don’t appear to have resulted in a surge of new cases.

The biggest blemish in recent days is an outbreak among state inmates and federal detainees in Otero County, state officials said. Just Thursday, the state announced that testing had confirmed 110 new cases of the disease at the Otero County prison.

“We are happy with our progress in all other areas of the state and are pleased that we have not had to use the ‘room’ in the (health care) delivery system that was built in to the gating criteria for an increase in cases,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Thursday.

New Mexico’s overall spread rate demonstrates the level of improvement.

The effective rate of disease transmission stood at roughly 2.0 in late March, meaning each person infected with COVID-19 would generally spread the virus to two others, based on state data.

But the rate fell to 1.07 at the beginning of June, the state’s modeling shows. The improvement hasn’t been as dramatic recently, but even in late May, New Mexicans whittled down the transmission rate from 1.09 to 1.07 over roughly a week’s time.

Small improvements in the rate can have a dramatic impact on the number of people who end up infected – a result of the exponential growth in how the disease spreads.

Since late March, the starkest change has come in northwestern New Mexico, where the Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest-hit communities in the country.

The spread rate in San Juan, McKinley and Cibola counties – the state’s northwest region – exceeded 2.5 in late March but is now down to 1.08, according to the state’s modeling.

But a new trouble spot is emerging. The state has seen an explosion of cases – including one death – among the population at the Otero County prison, which holds state inmates and federal detainees.

Through Thursday, the state reported 249 cases of COVID-19 among federal detainees and 206 among state inmates at two separate facilities in Otero County, which is in southern New Mexico.

The numbers reflect a sharp increase Thursday, when the state announced that 66 more federal detainees and 44 more state inmates tested positive.

Altogether, testing has confirmed 363 cases at the Otero County Prison Facility, which has a capacity for 647 people. The prison holds people in state and federal custody.

At a separate processing center, there have been 92 cases.

The detention environment presents its own challenges, of course, for containing the disease. The state Department of Health has been working with corrections officials on isolation and sanitization procedures intended to limit the spread of the disease – both within the prison and outside its walls.

8 deaths, 218 new cases

Altogether, the state on Thursday reported eight more coronavirus deaths and 218 more cases.

The additional deaths – adults ranging in age from their 40s to their 90s, all with underlying medical conditions – pushed the statewide death toll to 383.

Five of the deaths were people from McKinley County, two were from San Juan and one was from Bernalillo County.

The state has now confirmed 8,353 cases of the virus since it was first detected March 11.

The Department of Health designates 3,115 people as having recovered from the disease, and 170 virus patients are in the hospital.

Not safe to fully reopen

The modeling report showing improvement in the transmission rate was issued earlier this week.

It’s too soon to say whether the latest round of reopenings – issued Monday, allowing indoor restaurants, gyms and salons to operate at partial capacity – will affect the transmission rate.

The modeling report was issued by the state Department of Health, Presbyterian and Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories.

State health officials continue to urge New Mexicans to stay home for all but essential outings and to wear cloth masks in public, except when eating, drinking or exercising.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and top health officials say New Mexicans’ willingness to engage in social distancing has helped drive down the transmission rate. But it isn’t safe yet, they say, to fully reopen.


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