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HSD secretary: Herd immunity strategy proves unsuccessful

Human Services Secretary David Scrase listens as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the state’s COVID-19 response efforts in this April 15 file photo. New Mexico’s death tally from the disease caused by the coronavirus increased to 387 on Friday after four additional deaths were announced (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – One of New Mexico’s top health officials said Friday that combating the spread of COVID-19 by allowing “herd immunity” to build in the general population has not proven to be a successful strategy to date in places it’s been implemented.

During an online news briefing with reporters on Friday, state Human Services Secretary David Scrase said New Mexico’s more restrictive approach has slowed the spread of the disease and should allow schools to be reopened in the fall, though state education officials are still studying different scenarios.

“I think my view is that we should be planning on reopening schools,” he said, while adding that teachers should still be getting more training on distance education over the summer months.

However, Scrase said new cases of the coronavirus will continue popping up at least until there’s a vaccine.

NM Human Services Secretary David Scrase

He also said New Mexico officials would likely consider reimposing business restrictions in certain parts – or all – of the state if the COVID-19 transmission rate were to increase without a simple explanation or fix.

Scrase’s remarks came shortly before the state announced an additional 331 confirmed cases of the disease caused by the virus in New Mexico – the highest daily figure since the outbreak started in mid-March.

A total of 129 of the new confirmed cases came from the Otero County Detention Center in Chaparral, where state and federal inmates are held separately and a rapidly-spreading outbreak has infected nearly 500 inmates in all.

There have been 219 confirmed cases among the 543 state inmates currently housed at the facility – meaning roughly 40% have tested positive.

In addition, two inmates held at the prison have now died due to COVID-19, as a male inmate in his 60s with underlying health conditions was one of four New Mexico deaths announced Friday by state Department of Health officials.

The other three individuals who died were also men in their 60s or older who lived in Bernalillo, McKinley and San Juan counties, respectively. The four deaths brought New Mexico’s coronavirus fatality tally to 387.

Morgen Jaco, the director of recidivism reduction for the state Corrections Department, told the Journal on Friday that seven inmates are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms.

Sweden’s approach

While most countries have enacted varying degrees of lockdowns, Scrase on Friday cited the experience of Sweden, which largely kept its economy open in response to the pandemic and ended up seeing higher infection and mortality rates than its neighboring countries.

“This idea that we just let the virus run wild and we’ll be all set did not pan out in Stockholm,” he said, referring to Sweden’s capital city.

Herd immunity refers to slowing the spread of disease by having a significant majority of the population become immune to it, either from a vaccine or something else.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration took an opposite response to the coronavirus outbreak, ordering the closure of businesses deemed to be nonessential and closing schools shortly after the state’s first confirmed cases were reported.

While the state’s heavily Native American northwest region has been hit hard by COVID-19, two New Mexico counties – Mora and DeBaca – have still not recorded any confirmed coronavirus cases, and several other counties have only a small number of cases.

Protests fuel cases

Echoing remarks made earlier this week by Lujan Grisham, Scrase said it’s likely that coronavirus cases will increase due to widespread protests of race-related issues that have taken place in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Las Cruces and other cities around the state.

“I think there will be more cases, and I’m just not sure how many,” Scrase said.

He also said the number New Mexicans who have recovered after testing positive for COVID-19 is likely higher than the 3,206 figure reported Friday by the state, in part due to the fact that some of those who recover do not report their improved health status.

With New Mexico’s overall infection rate now dropping and its testing capacity having increased to nearly 5,000 tests per day, the administration has over the last month started taking gradual steps toward reopening the state’s economy.

However, the pandemic and the state’s response to it have taken a toll, as the state’s unemployment rate hit 11.3% in April – up from 5% a year earlier.

In addition, state revenues are expected to plummet in the coming year due to the double whammy of the coronavirus pandemic and falling oil prices.

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