Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico set another grisly record Thursday with 48 coronavirus deaths, the most in a day so far.
But Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a public briefing that relief is on the way – in the form of thousands more doses of the Pfizer vaccine next week, the expected launch of at-home virus testing and, eventually, more in-person learning for New Mexico students.
“I know people are hurting,” she said Thursday, but “we will get to the other side of this.”
Her remote news conference – streamed online – came as New Mexico’s coronavirus death toll climbed to 2,097 residents. The state has averaged about 36 deaths a day over the last week, the deadliest seven-day stretch of the pandemic.
And New Mexico may not have hit the worst of it yet, Lujan Grisham said, with Christmas travel expected to produce another surge in cases.
But she and the two physicians in her Cabinet – Human Services Secretary David Scrase and Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins – also suggested they can see the state turning the corner sometime soon.
• The state expects to receive another shipment of the Pfizer vaccine early next week – roughly equal to or bigger than the 17,550 doses that arrived already, perhaps as many as 30,000. It will be dedicated largely to the front-line health care workers most at risk of contracting COVID-19.
• The state is working to provide free at-home testing for COVID-19. The governor described the availability of the new tests as “imminent” through a company called Vault Health, which developed a saliva test that can be done at home and return results in a day or two.
• In-person learning may be expanded at some point next year. New Mexico is closely examining the potential health risks to children and how much schools contribute to spread of the disease.
“I want this second semester to have more in-person learning for our students in New Mexico,” Lujan Grisham said.
Little in-person learning is allowed in New Mexico now.
The surge continues
New Mexico’s coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths remain high.
The state reported 1,702 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, reducing the rolling seven-day average to 1,618 cases a day. But the average is still almost 10 times higher than the reopening target of 168 cases a day or fewer.
Health officials reported 852 coronavirus patients in New Mexico hospitals, with 162 on ventilators to help them breathe.
“We must change this trajectory,” Lujan Grisham said as she began a remote news conference Thursday. “We are continuing to overwhelm our health care providers and hospitals.”
Just 1% of the state’s virus hospitalizations are children, Scrase said, a factor state officials will weigh as they consider whether to allow schools to reopen.
Scrase said the state’s hospitals are embracing a number of new treatments and medicines that are helping keep deaths and hospitalizations from rising higher than they already are.
Nonetheless, COVID-19 deaths are coming so fast that portable, refrigerated morgues are in use.
NM needs more vaccines
Even with more vaccines on the way, Lujan Grisham said she doesn’t think there will be enough this month to give the first shot to all of the state’s front-line health care workers. It takes two shots – spaced three weeks apart – for full protection.
“The reality is,” the governor said, “We just aren’t getting enough vaccine as quickly as we need.”
In Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Hospital began vaccinations Wednesday. Hospital officials said they expected nearly 3,000 front-line workers in direct contact with COVID-19 patients would be vaccinated in coming days.
More broadly, it’s unclear so far, Lujan Grisham said, how many vaccines New Mexico will get and when.
She estimated the general public would have access to vaccines in early spring but that “it could be faster if we get more doses coming in.”
Collins, who began leading the state Department of Health this week, said New Mexico is also preparing to receive vaccines from Moderna soon. The company’s vaccines are expected to go to people who live or work at nursing homes.
Collins also said there’s promising new evidence that the vaccines will reduce transmission of the virus, not just keep people from feeling sick.
A forecast by Los Alamos National Laboratory suggests vaccinations should start to reduce New Mexico’s COVID-19 cases in mid- to late January.
“We just need to hang on,” Collins said.
Neither the governor nor anyone in her Cabinet have received the vaccine so far. Lujan Grisham said she was excited to get one when supplies are less limited.
Eventually, she said, she hopes 70% or more of the population will get vaccinated.
Zoom this Christmas
Lujan Grisham and her Cabinet members encouraged New Mexicans to stay home for the holidays – a step they said could help avoid further strain on the state’s hospitals.
“Another spike is what we’re anticipating,” Collins said of Christmas get-togethers. “Hopefully, I’m wrong.”
Lujan Grisham said she planned to celebrate Christmas over Zoom, the web conferencing program.
“It’s not what I want for my mother,” she said. “It’s not what any of us want.”