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NM keeps eyes on growth in virus spread


Human Services Secretary David Scrase takes part in a remote news conference broadcast from the Capitol in August. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – State epidemiologists are closely tracking an increase in how quickly COVID-19 is spreading in New Mexico – an uptick possibly set in motion by travel and social gatherings over Labor Day weekend.

The spread rate of the disease reached 1.11 on Sunday, meaning each person infected will, on average, spread it to 1.11 other people, according to statistical modeling by the state Department of Health. That’s the highest rate of spread since early July. The state’s target is 1.05 or less.

But the state’s daily case totals remain fairly low, suggesting even some growth won’t push the state out of compliance with more of its reopening criteria. New Mexico has averaged about 124 new cases a day over the past week, well within the target of 168 or fewer cases a day.

“We’re watching it really closely,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said of the increase in the transmission rate, “and we’re hoping New Mexicans will continue to mask up.”

In a public briefing Tuesday, Scrase said state health officials have expected to see some increase in disease spread as restaurants reopened to indoor dining – at just partial capacity – and other restrictions were relaxed a few weeks ago. The hope is that it will plateau at an acceptable level.

“We knew it was going to go up,” Scrase said. “The question is, what’s it going to do in the next week or two? If it continues to go up, we’re going to have to think about how to respond to that.”

It’s a little too early, he said, to say whether the start of the school year has contributed to the increase. Most school districts have opted to stick with remote learning for now.

But travel and gatherings over Labor Day weekend, Scrase said, are a likely factor. An increasing share of people who tested positive for COVID-19 in late August and early September reported having traveled, attended a gathering or visited restaurants or breweries.

“People moving around and interacting person-to-person leads to more transmission,” acting State Epidemiologist Chad Smelser said.

There’s no easy answer, he said, about when it would be appropriate to reimpose more restrictions.

New Mexico reported 110 new cases of the disease Tuesday, led by 21 cases in Bernalillo County, the state’s most populous county.

But the southeastern part of the state is experiencing the fastest growth in new cases, according to state data released Tuesday.

State officials on Tuesday also reported three virus deaths – a woman in her 70s and two men in their 90s.

The statewide death toll now stands at 854 since March.

Scrase and Smelser also said that the Department of Health’s coronavirus website – – now includes much more detailed information about the pandemic’s impact on New Mexicans’ health. The state is posting weekly reports under the link to “epidemiology reports” in the purple banner at the top of the page.

Among the findings:

• Heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure are the three most common underlying conditions in people whose deaths are related to COVID-19. Other common conditions include chronic lung or kidney disease and obesity.

• The highest mortality rates are among those ages 65 and older, men and Native Americans.

• Native Americans once made up the largest share of New Mexico’s coronavirus cases, but Hispanic and white residents now make up a higher percentage of cases.

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