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NM virus growth may be reaching new plateau

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The rapid growth in New Mexico’s coronavirus outbreak is leveling off – a sign the disease isn’t spreading as rapidly now as it did for most of the summer, according to statistical modeling by Presbyterian Healthcare Services and the state Department of Health.

That’s the good news.

But the state has plateaued at a high level, reaching a record high earlier this week in the average number of new cases detected by testing each day.

In an interview, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the next goal for the state – now that growth has slowed – is to push the number of cases back down, reducing the prevalence of the disease in New Mexico.

“If you’re headed toward the edge of the cliff,” he said, “and you manage to stop the car, that’s a positive thing. But you still have to back up.”

Nonetheless, he called it “fantastic news” that New Mexico’s spread rate fell to 1.0 this week – its lowest level since mid-June, according to statistical modeling.

The 1.0 rate of transmission means that each person with COVID-19 will, on average, spread it to one other person. It suggests presence of the disease is now flat, rather than growing.

But pushing the number below 1.0 would put the disease on the path to slowly dying out.

The spread rate climbed to about 1.2 in late June and early July, triggering growth that pushed the average number of new cases in New Mexico to a record high of 286 through Tuesday. The number fell slightly on Wednesday, to an average of 284 cases for the last seven days.

Even small changes in the spread rate can quickly add up because of the potential for exponential growth.

This week’s 1.0 spread rate is the lowest calculated in New Mexico’s weekly modeling reports since June 16, when the rate fell below 0.9.

The rate was closer to 2.0 early in the pandemic, meaning each person infected would transmit the disease to two other people.

Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which helps handle the statistical modeling, said the fall in spread rate is encouraging. But he said there are still some potential problem areas – such as a 1.2 transmission rate in northeastern New Mexico, including Santa Fe County, and a 1.1 rate in the Albuquerque area.

He described the spread rate in Bernalillo County – the state’s most populous county – as a “worrisome trend.”

Hospitalizations up

The state reported 316 more coronavirus cases Wednesday, continuing a week of high numbers for newly detected infections.

The number of virus patients in New Mexico hospitals also climbed 16%, an increase from 154 patients Tuesday to 178 on Wednesday. That figure includes both in-state patients and those transferred to New Mexico from other states.

State officials announced three more virus deaths – all individuals with underlying medical conditions – pushing the statewide death toll to 591 residents.

Those who died were a man in his 30s and a woman in her 50s from McKinley County and a woman in her 80s from Bernalillo County.

The state is now averaging fewer than five deaths a day, or less than half the peak of 10 deaths a day in mid-May.

The 316 new cases reported Wednesday moved the average daily case count for the past week to 284, just below the record high of 286 on Tuesday.

“The fact that we’ve leveled off is a good thing,” Scrase said, “but we have to push the number of cases back down.”

Since the pandemic arrived in the state in March, New Mexico has reported 17,828 cases of COVID-19 and 489,334 tests, for a positivity rate of 3.6%. The positivity rate has been a little higher recently, according to calculations by Johns Hopkins University, which estimates New Mexico’s positivity rate at 3.7% for the seven-day period that ended Sunday.

The state has designated 6,974 people as having recovered.

Tighter rules

The decline in the rate of transmission to 1.0 comes after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials tightened New Mexico’s mask mandate and announced plans for aggressive enforcement. They also reimposed a ban on indoor dining at restaurants.

Scrase said the spread rate often falls when case counts are high. People start to take more precautions, he said, because they either know someone who’s sick or see the increased publicity about the virus.

The spread rate is now below the state’s target for its reopening plan – a transmission rate of 1.05.

It’s just one of several standards set by New Mexico to guide when it’s safe to move into the next phase of relaxed restrictions on businesses and individuals.

As of Friday, the state was still falling short of some of its other goals – such as the time it takes contact tracers to get in touch with people who have either tested positive or come into contact with someone who has.

Mitchell, of Presbyterian, encouraged fellow New Mexicans to “all do our part” to help reduce the transmission rate and allow for a safe reopening.

“We know that social distancing, wearing face masks and reducing mobility are how we gain control over a pandemic,” he said.

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