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NM braces for behavioral health crisis

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In this file photo from Aug. 6, Human Services Secretary David Scrase takes part in a weekly update on the COVID-19 health emergency in New Mexico. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico is encouraging teachers to watch for signs of child abuse and neglect – even in online classrooms – as state agencies shift strategies to keep up with the coronavirus pandemic.

The new training offered to teachers comes after a sharp drop in abuse and neglect reports earlier this year, state officials say, when shelter-in-place instructions took hold and schools moved to remote learning.

The revised training is one example of how New Mexico health officials say they are responding to a potential “behavioral health crisis” triggered by family isolation, economic hardship and illness.

Brian Blalock

“It’s something that’s at the forefront of our minds,” Brian Blalock, secretary of the state Children, Youth and Families Department, said Wednesday in a public briefing.

New Mexico is preparing for a 15% to 20% surge in behavioral health issues over the next nine months, state officials said, but the early signs are mixed.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said a national survey found more than twice as many people as usual reporting anxiety and suicidal thoughts. Medical visits related to behavioral health are up significantly in New Mexico this year, he said, but they had been climbing even before the pandemic.

The youth suicide rate so far this year, Blalock said, is lower than it was in 2019. But New Mexico’s overall suicide rate is still high – the highest in the country in 2018, according to data released earlier this summer.

“There is a behavioral health crisis coming,” Blalock said, “but in a lot of ways, New Mexico has been in a behavioral health crisis for years.”

Child abuse and neglect reports to CYFD’s central intake center fell by 30% from March to April this year – a sign that fewer people were able to look out for vulnerable kids. The calls have since bounced back almost to normal levels, according to figures released by the state.

The calls were down just 5% in June this year compared with the same month last year.

Blalock said his department has developed training for schoolteachers on how to spot abuse or neglect in virtual settings, including questions to ask and what to watch for.

The state, he said, is also reaching out to families who have had previous contact with the Children, Youth and Families Department, even if there’s no case open now, to check on kids.

Scrase said the state has also adjusted its Medicaid reimbursement rates to ensure that providers aren’t discouraged from conducting telehealth visits. It’s had some surprising results, he said.

“We’re hearing anecdotally from therapists all over the state – somehow people are actually more open to sharing the issue they’re struggling with” in a remote visit, Scrase said. “That was one I didn’t see coming.”

Contact tracing

The state also reported progress in its contact tracing Wednesday, and New Mexico – once again – meets all of its reopening criteria.

The Department of Health sliced the median time to ensure someone is isolated after possible exposure to the virus from 47 hours last week to 28 hours this week. The state’s goal is 36 hours or less.

Health officials also reported three more coronavirus deaths, pushing the statewide death toll to 790 since March. Those whose deaths were reported Wednesday were older adults, ranging in age from their 60s to their 100s, all underlying medical conditions.

The state also reported 154 new virus cases Wednesday – led by 33 new infections in Doña Ana County, followed by Bernalillo and Chaves counties, which reported 24 new cases each.

The state’s seven-day rolling average now stands at 126 cases a day, well below the target of 168 or fewer cases.

New Mexico meets all of its reopening standards on testing capacity, spread of the disease and other factors.

Over the weekend, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration loosened the state’s public health order to allow indoor dining at 25% of capacity in restaurants and breweries.

Vaccine expected

Scrase, a physician, said Wednesday that New Mexico health officials expect a COVID-19 vaccine to be available as soon as November, starting with distribution to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities.

It could be available to the general public for free in January, he said, at hospitals, pharmacies, public health offices and other locations.

Scrase also encouraged New Mexicans to catch up on their normal health screenings, including colonoscopies and other procedures, and to get their flu shots soon.

“Get those done within September and October,” he said, “so we can focus on COVID.”


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