Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico hit a grim milestone on Wednesday – 500 deaths from COVID-19 in less than 15 weeks.
The virus has taken an especially high toll among the elderly, those in long-term care facilities and Native Americans.
Those who died of the virus include at least three people in Bernalillo County who worked at nursing homes or assisted living facilities. The youngest of those was a 30-year-old woman, state health officials have reported for the first time.
The overall death toll, in line with one of the earliest projections, coincides with heightened concern about where New Mexico and the country are headed in the fight to slow the virus spread this summer while waiting for a vaccine.
The latest data released Wednesday shows the virus is proving deadly to a greater share of New Mexicans ages 50 and older. Since May 31, the day before restrictions on businesses such as restaurants, gyms and hair salons were relaxed, new virus cases have shot up by more than 59%.
At least one medication, Remdesivir, seems to help improve survival odds, but the recent increase in new cases among those 30 to 60 years old could still fuel the death rate in the coming months, state officials say.
A forecast from Los Alamos National Laboratory says up to 170 more COVID-related deaths in New Mexico could be expected by Aug. 8. The respiratory virus has killed more than 124,000 in the U.S.
State Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, a top adviser to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the spike in new coronavirus cases will likely spur more hospitalizations. As hospitalizations rise in the next several weeks, an increase in deaths is expected to follow.
Though younger people appear more resilient to the respiratory disease, there’s been an uptick in the number of younger people being hospitalized, Kate Becker, CEO of University of New Mexico Hospital, told the Bernalillo County Commission.
Typically, those with pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure and severe lung disease, have been the most vulnerable. That could help explain why 387 of the 500 deaths were among those 60 and older, DOH data shows.
“At first, we had more older patients hospitalized … and it was very much more people with a variety of pre-existing conditions,” Becker told the commission. “Obviously, that still happens, but we’re starting to see people (hospitalized) who otherwise seem to be healthy.”
Scrase said that at the current rate, even with social distancing, facial masks and other precautions to prevent transmission from person to person, the idea of another 1,500 COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico over the next nine months is conceivable.
“One death is too many deaths,” Scrase said. “Nothing has changed about the disease, really. It has the same infectivity and the effect on the human body as it did when it started. I think our main hope to reduce the death rate right now is treatment and having high-risk individuals stay at home.”
Data released by the state Health Department this week offers new insight about who has died since New Mexico’s first coronavirus death, on March 23, of an Artesia man in his 80s.
Days after that death, researchers at the University of Washington projected the peak of projected deaths in New Mexico would be 513 on July 3. Under that model, which was later amended, the forecast number of deaths was as high as 803 throughout the summer.
The reality is that Native Americans in New Mexico have been the hardest hit, with at least 299 deaths reported. Under the Department of Health category of “White,” there were 117 deaths; and Hispanics at 77. The Health Department data, which was released to the Journal earlier this week, didn’t list coronavirus deaths for any other race or ethnic group.
The agency data shows that Native Americans had the largest share of deaths – by far – of people under age 65. Native Americans under 65 accounted for 133 deaths, compared with 13 for Hispanics and four for Anglos.
More men than women have died, 55% compared with 45%, and 69% of deaths occurred in the northwestern part of the state.
About 40% of those who died, or 201 people, lived in long-term care facilities, compared with about 43% of deaths nationally of such residents.
The number of deaths is more than twice the 237 reported deaths attributed by the Health Department to pneumonia and/or influenza during the 2018-2019 flu season.
The state’s per capita death rate is 23.5 per 100,000, compared with 38.2 for the nation as a whole. New Mexico’s death rate per capita from the virus is still second-highest in the region, with Colorado at 29.5, and Arizona close behind at 22.3.
New Mexico’s case surge, from 7,689 May 31 to 12,276 reported Wednesday, is dwarfed by the torrent of new cases engulfing neighboring states of Texas and Arizona, which opened up their economies earlier without mandating precautions such as wearing facial masks.
“Nothing about the virus has changed,” the governor said last week. “We are no longer improving. We must remain vigilant.”
She cited the case of someone who died in Albuquerque after traveling to Arizona “for a family event and bringing COVID back. They (out-of-state trips) have dire consequences.” The governor said she learned about the death after a relative of the person contacted her to express regret at taking the trip out of state.
Other data shows nearly half of those who died lived in just two northwestern counties – San Juan and McKinley – with large Native American populations. Eighty-five deaths had been recorded in the state’s largest county, Bernalillo.
Scrase said cases reported among New Mexicans ages 20 to 60 have accounted for about 65% of COVID-19 cases.
Only five deaths have been reported among those 29 and under, although that age group now represents nearly 30% of the cases.
Meanwhile, the percentage of those 60 and older testing positive for the disease appears to be declining.
“I think the word got out early, and older people are taking the stay-at-home order more seriously,” said Scrase, who said he rarely sees people in their 70s or 80s who aren’t wearing masks in public. “I also think folks generally in older age groups have less mobility.”
One hopeful development, he said, is the “ancedotal evidence” that the experimental anti-viral medication Remdesivir can lower mortality rates by 5% to 7%. Several weeks ago, Scrase said the state had received more than 3,000 vials of Remdesivir – enough to treat from 300 to 400 patients.
“Ultimately, every death is really a tragedy,” Scrase said. “Every time we add to that count, it’s just sad. Hopefully we’ll get some advances in treatment before the vaccine comes out. Hopefully the speed to producing the vaccine will increase and we’ll have something earlier than we thought.
“But until all that happens, people need to stay at home, wear masks and do all the social distancing recommendations.”