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New Mexico closes in on virus goals

Medical personnel test people at the Lovelace Medical Center in Downtown Albuquerque in May. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico is now meeting its targets for coronavirus contact tracing – the time it takes to isolate someone who tests positive – after a dramatic turnaround over the past month.

The improvement means the state has now cleared almost every standard it set as necessary before reopening more of the economy.

“All the gating criteria are coming down nicely,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said in an interview Wednesday. “We’re really on the verge of being a ‘green’ state again.”

Indeed, New Mexico is now averaging 179 new coronavirus cases a day – pushing the state’s seven-day rolling average to its lowest point since late June, according to a Journal analysis.

Contact tracing, however, had remained a trouble spot in recent weeks even as the number of new infections fell, hospitals maintained adequate medical supplies and the state exceeded its goals for testing capacity.

The state Department of Health estimates that it now takes only 22 hours to ensure someone is isolated after a positive test – four times faster than a month ago, when the median time was 96 hours.

And quarantining an infected person’s contacts now takes about 29 hours, down from 144 hours in mid-July.

The speed of New Mexico’s contact tracing – for the first time – now falls within the goals set by the state. The target is 24 hours for self-isolation and 36 hours for quarantining contacts.

Only one of the state’s reopening criteria is still outstanding – the average number of new coronavirus cases detected each day by testing. State health officials haven’t set a specific standard yet, listing the goal as “to be determined.”

But New Mexico is improving by that calculation, too. The state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases plunged 46% in a two-week period, from 330 cases on average in late July to 179 on Wednesday.

The falling case total has helped accelerate the contact tracing by reducing the number of people who must be reached by state health employees.

In a written statement, David Morgan, a spokesman for the Department of Health, said increased staffing levels are also a factor. The state has about 400 staffers trained to do contact tracing, with about 200 of them dedicated full-time to making contact tracing calls to people.

They are paid through funding the state receives from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A job posting on the state website Wednesday advertised pay of $16 to $28 an hour for temporary positions.

“The department continues to scale up staffing,” Morgan said, “to ensure ample staff to meet the demands of contact tracing, as well as the continued assessment of capacity against demand to ensure proper staffing levels.”

Spike in Lea County

New Mexico reported just two additional virus deaths Wednesday, or half the recent average of four deaths a day over the past week.

The two deaths reported Wednesday – both older men from McKinley County with underlying health conditions – pushed the statewide death toll to 695 residents.

The state also recorded 180 new virus cases, moving the daily average for the past week to 179.

Lea County, in southeastern New Mexico, however, continued to endure a spike in cases, with 35 new infections reported Wednesday, or four more than were reported in Bernalillo County, which has over 10 times the population.

Doña Ana County cases also remained high, leading the state with 37 cases.

The state has now confirmed 22,816 cases of the virus out of 644,823 tests, for a positivity rate of 3.5%. But the rate has fallen recently, with just 2.6% of tests in a recent seven-day period coming back positive.

The number of tests administered has also fallen a bit as hospitals focus their supplies on people with virus symptoms, not just anyone who wants a test. An average of about 7,070 tests are being done per day now, far above the state’s target of 5,000 tests a day but a few hundred fewer than was typical earlier this month.

Reopening schools

The signs of improvement come as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration considers whether to allow a partial reopening of public schools after Labor Day. Students this week began online learning, a practice the governor said she expects to last through at least Sept. 8.

State officials have broached the idea of allowing elementary school students to return to school on some days after that, depending on the spread and prevalence of the virus. Older students would be phased in after the younger ones.

Even if the governor permits the partial reopening of schools, districts would have the option of continuing online learning.

Scrase, a physician and key adviser to Lujan Grisham, said New Mexico needs more data before determining whether it’s safe to reopen some schools. The spread of the virus, he said, can grow quickly.

“It’s too early to tell,” Scrase said. “We’ve seen changes in the direction of the curve take place in a week’s period of time.”

The Lujan Grisham administration also faces pressure – especially from Republican legislators and many business owners – to relax public health regulations that have banned indoor dining at restaurants and limited a variety of other businesses to partial capacity.

The state’s public health order is scheduled to expire Aug. 28, although the Department of Health may revise or extend it before then.


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