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Virus cases spike in Bernalillo County

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

It took New Mexico’s most populous county about three months to reach its first 1,700 COVID-19 infections.

The next 1,700 took approximately one month.

Bernalillo County – home to the city of Albuquerque – has seen its total reported infections grow 98% between mid-June and mid-July, according to numbers released by the New Mexico Department of Health.

That’s compared to 60% statewide growth in the same period.

New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Friday that Bernalillo County has “almost a vertical line uptick” in cases. He blamed the recent increase on people leaving their homes more often as they grow tired of the health restrictions and are less cautious.

Mayor Tim Keller, meanwhile, has been warning Albuquerque residents not to forget the continuing threat despite what he calls “coronavirus fatigue.”

“I think it’s important to remember … there is no quick fix right now,” Keller said at a media briefing Wednesday, “so we’ve got to really be prepared for the long haul.”

Despite its surge, Bernalillo County is not the state’s hardest-hit county.

McKinley County in northwestern New Mexico has by far the most infections on a per-capita basis and also more total reported cases than any other county, but its recent daily infection numbers are now lower than their spring peak. Though Bernalillo County’s cases per capita are still far lower than McKinley’s – and lower than several other counties’ – it is presently on pace to eclipse McKinley’s total infection count in the next few days.

Bernalillo County coronavirus deaths, however, are climbing at a lower rate than its cases. Total fatalities increased 24% over the last month.

Albuquerque officials long anticipated COVID-19 problems due to the city’s population density and because it has facilities – like the airport and shopping centers – that draw people from the rest of the state, Keller has said. The virus typically spreads person to person, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it has battered many major American metropolitan areas.

Keller has repeatedly noted how the Albuquerque area has so far fared better than other metros around the region, including Phoenix and El Paso, which have higher per-capita case counts.

Bernalillo even saw daily case count averages fall and flatten after a bump in early-May.

But numbers are now spiking.

The recent surge in cases coincides with when you’d expect more infections to be detected after Fourth of July social gatherings, according to Scrase.

“I think it’s people getting tired of COVID and not really believing they’re going to get it,” he said of the uptick in Bernalillo County.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration had begun loosening statewide COVID-19-related restrictions in late May but has recently restored some of them, such as the ban on indoor restaurant dining. She also strengthened the state’s mask mandate, meaning everyone now must wear a face covering while in public unless they are eating, drinking or swimming.

Throughout the pandemic, Keller has reiterated that he could, and would, impose even stricter city-level limitations if necessary. He has largely avoided doing that, though on Wednesday he signed a new emergency declaration and launched a new strategy to enforce the mask mandate. It allows the city to now remove people from its airport, buses and other facilities if they are not wearing masks and refuse to use one the city provides.

City spokeswoman Jessie Damazyn said the new declaration also prepares the city to take measures beyond the state orders, but that will only come with guidance from state and local health professionals, and the city’s Emergency Operations Center.

So far, Damazyn said that is not necessary.

“At this time, we are following the level of restrictions in the state order because it works for Albuquerque,” she wrote in a statement. “But as the largest metro area, we know the impact of coronavirus won’t be (the) same here as it is in rural areas and are closely monitoring the situation. Our most recent emergency declaration puts us on the right footing for a long haul, and prepares us to carve our own path if we need to make targeted restrictions beyond the state’s.”

Dan McKay contributed to this report.


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