Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico state health officials launched a new counteroffensive against the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday, announcing state residents will be able to get free virus tests at home, as well as at the drive-thru testing sites around the state.
A top health official in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration said the option could allow the state to boost its testing capacity to more than 20,000 tests per day – up from the current average of about 14,000 tests daily.
“We’re really hoping this will be something that New Mexico will welcome and will get our testing up to high enough levels to bring our (test) positivity rate back down to 5% and keep it there,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said during a remote news briefing Tuesday.
He also suggested the self-administered saliva tests could mark a watershed moment since some people might be reluctant to wait in long lines for a nasal swab test.
The at-home tests – based on a similar system in Minnesota – are the latest development in the state’s effort to turn the tide against the disease, which has killed more than 2,200 state residents.
After a rapid spike in COVID-19 cases last month, the state’s case growth has slowed across New Mexico in recent weeks.
The slowdown has reduced pressure on hospitals statewide and allowed them to pull back from crisis standards of care – a designation that allowed them to ration health care if demand for ventilators or other care exceeded the supply.
While such rationing did not occur on a broad scale, Scrase cautioned that hospitals are still largely full and cases could spike again due to family gatherings over the Christmas holiday.
He and other state officials reported 1,272 new COVID-19 cases statewide Tuesday, which kept the state’s rolling average of new daily cases largely static.
But the state’s death rate from the disease continued to decline, even as state health officials reported 23 additional deaths around New Mexico, including three inmates at state prisons.
The number of deaths per day has dropped from a seven-day rolling average of 31 to slightly more than 28 over the last week, according to a Journal analysis.
The free at-home COVID-19 tests will be available to New Mexico residents regardless of their exposure risk – and whether they have coronavirus symptoms or not.
Results will be available in 24 to 48 hours, state officials said Tuesday. To request a test, residents will need to provide some basic identifying information like their date of birth and photo identification.
An email address and internet connection are also necessary to connect with an online testing supervisor while self-administering the saliva test.
“Testing is an absolutely essential tool in our fight against the virus,” state Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins said in a statement. “When we know who’s positive, we can isolate the virus and cut down on transmission.”
The new do-it-yourself testing initiative stems from a state partnership with Vault Health, based in New York.
A Lujan Grisham spokeswoman said Tuesday the state would pay for tests that are not covered by health insurance companies, using either state or federal funds.
In addition, New Mexicans who do not have internet access can still get tested for the coronavirus at in-person sites that operate in all 33 counties, Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett told the Journal.
The at-home saliva test is not an antibody test and is only designed to determine whether an individual is currently infected with the coronavirus and could spread the virus to others, according to the company’s website.
Testing is a key part of the Lujan Grisham administration’s efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, as a county-by-county test positivity rate of 5% or lower is one of two statistical targets under the state’s red-to-green system for setting business restrictions.
State health officials are expected to update a statewide map used to determine such restrictions on a county-by-county basis next week.
New Mexico’s improving COVID-19 outlook comes as some other states are dealing with an explosion of new cases.
Scrase said Tuesday that New Mexico now appears to be firmly on the downside of a third wave – and by far the largest wave – of coronavirus infections.
Among other trends, the state’s testing positivity rate has dropped to about 12% after topping out at roughly 25% during a spike in cases last month.
“(The current rate) is an awful number compared to where we want to be, but it’s a great number compared to where we’ve been,” Scrase told reporters.
Statewide, 810 individuals were hospitalized from COVID-19 as of Tuesday, up slightly from 796 a day earlier.
But the number of hospitalizations has decreased in recent weeks after surpassing 900 in late November.