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Coronavirus prevalence highest in SE New Mexico

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The southeast quadrant of New Mexico has three times as many new coronavirus cases per person as the state overall, according to a new report released by the state Department of Health.

The southeast region – stretching from Lea to Lincoln and Quay counties, by the department’s definition – averaged about 14 new cases a day for every 100,000 people in a recent-seven day period.

It’s the only region in the state with infection levels above the Department of Health’s target of eight or fewer new cases a day.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said she believes the southeast may have higher case levels, in part, because of the number of jobs in the oil fields – work that can’t be done remotely to limit disease transmission. The work also includes a disproportionate amount of travel as people drive to and from Texas.

They “go back and forth across the state line constantly,” Kernan said. “I think that’s a factor.”

Whatever the cause, the southeastern part of the state is enduring higher infection totals than elsewhere this month, according to the latest statistical report issued by the Department of Health.

Overall, the state averaged 4.4 new cases in the week that ended Sept. 13, or about one-third as many cases as in the southeast. The Albuquerque metropolitan area had the lowest disease prevalence, at just 2.2 cases.

The southeast hasn’t always been the state’s hot spot. The northwestern region – including parts of the Navajo Nation and San Juan and McKinley counties – has been the hardest hit ever since the pandemic reached New Mexico in March.

But counties in the southeastern quadrant are now seeing the most cases, once population is factored in.

The regional differences are important. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is making county-by-county decisions on whether to allow the partial reopening of elementary schools.

Part of the criteria is whether the county the school is located in meets the target of just eight cases a day or fewer per 100,000 population. School districts must meet other standards, too, including approval of a specific re-entry plan.

Kernan, a retired teacher, said the failure to reopen schools in southeastern New Mexico is a tremendous strain on families, especially single parents. School districts and teachers in the area, she said, are prepared to reopen safely.

“I’m extremely frustrated,” Kernan said in an interview. “I think at some point you have to balance the risk of catching COVID with the risk of what we’re doing to our children by not allowing them back to school.”

The state’s top health officials say the cautious approach is warranted. In other communities, they say, the key to successfully reopening schools was how prevalent the disease was in the broader population.

Sen. William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said the Lujan Grisham administration was right to set specific targets counties must meet before reopening schools.

“This is a deadly virus,” Soules said Wednesday. “Erring on the cautious side, I think, is the right thing to keep kids safe.”

Soules, who’s now retired, was teaching part-time last year when COVID-19 first disrupted the spring semester and forced schools into online learning. It’s important, he said, for students to have consistency, rather than opening schools too quickly and then having to shut them down again.

In the southwest quadrant – including the Las Cruces area – the disease prevalence rate is within the state’s target of eight or fewer cases a day. Regardless, Las Cruces has opted to stick with remote learning for now, as have large districts in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

New Mexico reported just 119 new coronavirus cases Wednesday as infection levels remained well within the state’s overall targets.

Lea County led the state with 16 new cases Wednesday, followed by Roosevelt County with 15 cases.

Eddy and Bernalillo counties each had 14 cases.

New Mexico’s seven-day rolling average now stands at 110 new cases a day, well below the state’s target of 168 or fewer cases overall, or eight cases per 100,000 people.

Health officials also reported two more virus fatalities, pushing the statewide death toll to 832 residents since March. Both victims were in their 60s – a man from Doña Ana County and a woman from Lea County.

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