Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The numbers make it clear.
New Mexicans are driving down the number of coronavirus infections and limiting the spread of the disease – enough to bring the state into compliance, for the first time, with its reopening criteria.
But what’s less clear, two of the state’s top health officials say, is the best way to reopen more of the economy and education system without igniting another surge in new infections.
In an online briefing Thursday, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said he doesn’t expect any major changes to the state’s public health order or other restrictions over the next week. The order is set to expire Aug. 28, though it may be extended or revised at any time.
“We believe we have room to do a little bit more reopening,” Scrase said, “and I want to emphasize ‘a little.’ … We need to move slowly.”
A key question, he said, is how long New Mexico should maintain compliance with all of its reopening criteria – standards the state now meets on testing capacity, disease spread and other factors – before relaxing some restrictions. The state cleared the final requirement this week.
“There honestly isn’t an answer” for how long to wait, said Chad Smelser, acting state epidemiologist. “We’re learning from this pandemic as we go. It’s clear that the longer you go meeting all of the gating criteria the better off you’ll be.”
He and Scrase said New Mexico hopes to settle on a reopening strategy that avoids the sharp growth in cases that followed decisions to relax state restrictions earlier this summer. Wearing masks, they said, is likely to be a standard practice until a vaccine or treatment is available.
The health order set to expire next week prohibits indoor dining at restaurants, limits the capacity of other businesses, and bans gatherings of more than five people. The state also requires a 14-day self-quarantine for most travelers entering New Mexico from outside the state or country.
Furthermore, the state has directed public schools to avoid in-person classes for almost all students through Labor Day, at the least.
Scrase suggested he is most focused on the potential to allow some in-person learning at schools, citing evidence that classroom time – rather than online activity – is particularly important for the academic growth of some students.
And he acknowledged other members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration are examining reopening strategies for other parts of public life.
Lujan Grisham and state officials have discussed the possibility of allowing in-person classes at elementary schools for two days a week following Labor Day, though no decision has been made. Some districts – including Albuquerque and Santa Fe public schools – have already decided to stick with distance learning well beyond that date.
The state is also facing litigation and pressure from business owners to allow indoor dining at restaurants and breweries – a restriction that was reimposed in mid-July. The state Supreme Court is set to hear arguments in the case Wednesday.
Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said New Mexico is one of just three states that completely ban dining inside.
“Restaurants are extremely disappointed that the state has met the gating criteria yet restaurants remain closed,” she said in a written statement Thursday. “We are hopeful that the gating criteria won’t change and the governor and Dr. Scrase will reopen restaurants on August 28th.”
Concern about southern NM
The number of new cases detected by testing has fluctuated in recent days.
Health officials reported 208 new cases Thursday, pushing the state’s seven-day rolling average up slightly to 138 cases. It’s still less than half the case average from earlier this month.
“The steady decline is really good news,” Smelser said. “We, of course, want to keep that progress going.”
The state also reported five more deaths, pushing the statewide death toll to 734 residents.
Three of the five victims were from Bernalillo County, and all had an underlying medical condition of some kind, a risk factor for the disease.
Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous county, led the state with 59 new cases, followed by Lea County in the southeastern part of the state, with 27 cases.
Smelser said southeastern New Mexico “is our most problematic region” now because cases there have reached a plateau rather than fallen, as in the rest of the state. The area’s proximity to Texas and travel across state lines are a concern, he said.
In Thursday’s briefing, Scrase and Smelser repeatedly urged New Mexicans to continue to wear masks and avoid large social gatherings. They said they were grateful for residents’ work to limit the spread of the disease.
Scrase encouraged people to think of the future reopening phases as a “dimmer switch” that turns the lights on slowly, rather than an on/off switch.