Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The coronavirus is now spreading most rapidly in southern New Mexico as a spike in infections just across the state line helps drive the growth, according to analysis by Presbyterian Healthcare Services and state officials.
It’s a reversal from earlier this year – when the virus struck hardest in northwestern New Mexico, especially the Navajo Nation.
But statistical modeling by Presbyterian now flags southwestern New Mexico – including Doña Ana County, near El Paso – as the region of the state with the highest rate of disease transmission.
Southeastern New Mexico and the Albuquerque metropolitan area are also showing strong growth.
“We are seeing a crossover of cases between Texas and New Mexico,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, a physician and chief medical officer at Presbyterian. “We believe that has driven a part of that spread.”
Altogether, New Mexico recorded its second-highest case total Wednesday – 290 new infections throughout the state.
The increase isn’t just a result of more testing. About 6.5% of the test results announced Wednesday were positive, well above the state’s overall 3.6% rate since testing began in March.
The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Mexico also jumped Wednesday – by 16% over the day before, to 154 patients.
Health officials reported eight more virus deaths, pushing the statewide death toll to 527 residents.
“This is untenable,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said on Twitter. “This virus is real. It is deadly. … I beg you to take it seriously.”
In an interview, Mitchell said it isn’t too late for New Mexico to avoid the “massive crisis” facing other states. He urged people to wear masks, wash their hands and practice social distancing.
“It’s really important for people to recognize that New Mexico is still in a place where we, as a community, can control COVID,” Mitchell said. “All bets are not lost.”
But he added: “It’s going to take that commitment of every single one of us to get us there.”
Spread rate is up
Modeling by Presbyterian estimates the spread rate of COVID-19 in southwestern New Mexico at 1.4, meaning that each person infected, on average, will transmit the disease to 1.4 other people. The region covers eight counties, including some that border Arizona, Texas and Mexico.
The spread rate is 1.3 in southeastern and central New Mexico, including Albuquerque. Transmission is lightest in northern New Mexico – just 1.1 in the northeast and 0.8 in the northwest.
The statewide rate is 1.2, up from 0.87 in mid-June.
Mitchell noted that both southern regions of New Mexico are adjacent to Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott said the state was facing a “massive outbreak.” Arizona is also experiencing rapid growth in cases.
Like Lujan Grisham, Abbott has called on residents to wear masks in public settings to limit transmission of the disease and allow businesses to stay at least partly open.
El Paso, in particular, has had a spike in cases, according to New Mexico officials who are monitoring the situation.
Despite the surge in virus cases in New Mexico, the number of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 is far lower than when it peaked in mid-May, near 225 people. Coronavirus hospitalizations, nonetheless, have climbed the past few days.
New Mexico’s hospitals are largely full, Mitchell said, even without high numbers of COVID-19 patients.
Many people, he said, delayed seeking health care during the pandemic, but they now require treatment and are filling up local hospitals.
Intensive care units in New Mexico, Mitchell said, are typically at 90% capacity or more now.
“There’s very little additional capacity for COVID,” Mitchell said.
Lujan Grisham, meanwhile, will deliver a public briefing Thursday afternoon to address the state’s response to the pandemic.
In recent days, she has directed law enforcement agencies to aggressively enforce New Mexico’s mask mandate and urged people to avoid family get-togethers.
She has raised the prospect of reimposing more restrictions on businesses and public gatherings as a way to limit spread of the virus but said she wants more data before deciding.