SANTA FE – A little over a month ago, just after Labor Day, it looked like New Mexico had turned the tide, pushing coronavirus cases to some of their lowest levels of the pandemic.
But as the state moved deeper into the fall, a much different picture emerged.
The number of COVID-19 infections has exploded – hitting a seven-day rolling average of 563 cases a day, the highest so far and more than six times higher than just five weeks ago.
New Mexicans, understandably, want to know what went wrong.
Health officials say there’s no easy answer. But they have repeatedly highlighted one factor – a broad sense of “COVID fatigue,” or letting your guard down.
Dr. Jason Mitchell, a physician and chief medical officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said he and others working with the state saw signs of increased travel and mobility even before Labor Day. People began expanding their social circles and spending more time outside the home interacting with other households.
“We all acted a little more normal and little less cautious,” Mitchell said in an interview Monday.
In a pandemic, he said, even small changes in behavior can have enormous consequences because of the potential for infectious diseases to grow exponentially.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has scheduled a remote news conference for Tuesday – two days earlier than her usual weekly briefing – to address the state’s efforts to curb the virus.
Just last week, her administration tightened occupancy limits at hotels, banned gatherings of more than five people and imposed a 10 p.m. closing time on restaurants and breweries that sell alcohol. She warned that there would be further restrictions if the numbers continued to stay high.
The state’s weekly epidemiology reports don’t offer a clear answer on why cases have climbed.
An increasing share of New Mexicans who test positive and have their cases investigated by contact tracers report having visited a restaurant or brewery beforehand, according to the reports. But those activities still account for just 15% or so of the cases investigated.
Out-of-state travel and attendance at a gathering of some kind are also cited with some frequency. But no single activity was reported by even 20% of those who tested positive in the most recent report.
For instance, none of the 151 new cases reported in Bernalillo County on Sunday involved the jail.
“It’s not one specific setting or place,” Mitchell said. “The data show it’s across the board – all ages, all demographics.”
The Metropolitan Detention Center accounted for about 18% of the cases – 343 out of 1,865 – reported in Bernalillo County over a two-week period. The jail cases make up about 6% of the state’s totals over that period.
Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the state Human Services Department, said that “person-to-person interactions in a variety of settings” are the cause of the growth in cases, not any one location or activity.
“The record numbers we are seeing are due to the fact that we are dealing with unprecedented virus spread and public health risk statewide,” she said in a written statement. ” ‘COVID fatigue’ is a factor statewide – when people let their guard down and underestimate the risks – a COVID infection can quickly spread.”
By some standards, New Mexico is still largely ahead of its neighbors. Through Tuesday last week, New Mexico ranked 14th in fewest cases per person among states since the beginning of the pandemic.
Among New Mexico’s neighbors, only Colorado has both fewer cases and fewer deaths per capita than New Mexico.
But the trend has changed dramatically. New Mexico is now 18th-worst in the country for cases per capita over the past week, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
New Mexico had 25.9 cases per 100,000 people over the last week. Three neighboring states are doing much better than New Mexico – Colorado at 17.2 cases, Texas at 15.6 and Arizona at 11.1.
Doing worse than New Mexico are Utah at 38.6 cases and Oklahoma at 29.9.
Seriously troubling trends lie just across the state line.
El Paso – where many southern New Mexico residents work or shop – is seeing a wave of increased cases. El Paso County alone reported more cases Monday – 555 – than New Mexico as a whole, even though it has less than half the population.
And hospitalizations have skyrocketed. The Associated Press reported that El Paso had 449 hospitalizations Saturday, compared with a total of 173 in New Mexico that day.
New Mexico reported 518 new coronavirus infections Monday, continuing a week of sky-high case totals.
Health officials on Monday reported just one death in New Mexico – that of a man in his 50s from Bernalillo County with an underlying health problem. The statewide death toll is now 935.
Fatalities have generally held steady around roughly three a day over the last week, well below the peak of 10 deaths a day in mid-May.
But hospitalizations have climbed. The state reported 183 virus patients in New Mexico hospitals Monday – more than double the number from the beginning of the month.
The share of tests that come back positive has tripled to 6.5% since mid-September.
The state’s target for reopening more of the economy is a positivity rate of 5% or less.
“This is exactly where we don’t want to be,” Lujan Grisham said last week.
Mitchell, the Presbyterian physician, warned Monday against assuming most people have little to worry about. About one in three adults in the state has high blood pressure, he said, and perhaps half the state might have an underlying condition of some kind that could be a COVID-19 risk factor.
Common conditions in New Mexico include obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
“More people are vulnerable than anyone can even imagine,” Mitchell said. “This could devastate New Mexico.”
As bad as things are now, health officials said, they could get worse.
McGinnis Porter said New Mexico’s statistical “modeling suggests that if we don’t change course, we can expect over 1,000 daily cases and could double or triple our number of deaths by the end of this year.”
A forecast published by Los Alamos National Laboratory estimates New Mexico will exceed 1,000 coronavirus deaths in the first week of November under a “middle-case scenario.” Somewhere between 990-1,300 deaths are forecast in the state by Nov. 29.
But New Mexicans’ success at limiting disease spread in August and September also offers hope, health officials say. Residents have already shown they can slow the spread of the disease by wearing masks, limiting social interaction outside their household and avoiding travel.
Indoor activities, Mitchell said, are especially dangerous for disease spread.
“It’s not rocket science,” Mitchell said. “We can actually do this. We can make it better.”