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Halfway there? NM eyes pandemic finish line

Registered nurses Mikayla Salazar, left, and Mandy Cordova take a moment after helping care for a COVID-19 patient at Guadalupe County Hospital in Santa Rosa on Dec. 11. The patient, an inmate at Guadalupe County Corrections, had come in the day before and was later taken by ambulance to Lovelace Medical Center. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – If the coronavirus pandemic were a marathon, New Mexico might be just hitting the halfway point as the calendar turns to 2021.

But the second half might be easier than the first.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said he believes the state is halfway through the pandemic, citing September 2021 as a realistic target for having sufficient herd immunity to be able to largely return to normal routines.

While that might sound discouraging to pandemic-weary New Mexicans, Scrase expressed optimism that the worst may have already passed.

“I’m really starting to think the second half of this is not going to be anywhere near as bad as the first (half),” he said, referring to increasing numbers of state residents who have received a COVID-19 vaccine and expanded testing options for the virus.

New Mexico’s coronavirus trends support his optimism. The number of new cases reported each day and the share of tests that come back positive – two of the state’s criteria for reopening – have fallen sharply since a peak the week of Thanksgiving.

They remain, however, well beyond the state’s goals.

A forecast by Los Alamos National Laboratory suggests New Mexico will have falling case totals through early January, with the possibility of an uptick after that. Holiday travel and social gatherings could contribute to the growth.

Vaccination efforts should start to reduce cases and deaths early this year, according to Los Alamos. The first effects of the Pfizer vaccines – which started being administered to health care workers in mid-December – could affect New Mexico’s virus growth curves before the end of January.

A projection by the University of Washington suggests New Mexico’s daily virus fatalities will peak sometime this month under most scenarios and then start to decline.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said New Mexicans’ willingness to get vaccinated and continue social distancing will be critical.

With progress on those fronts, he said, “I think we could actually see a good summer. It really depends on us as individuals.”

The state’s health care systems, Mitchell said, should emerge from the pandemic with better telemedicine capabilities and other improvements that will help serve patients better. But many medical practices and similar businesses, he said, have faced incredible financial hardship.

“I hope that we all grow from this,” Mitchell said in an interview. “It’s been a tragedy. We’ve lost so many lives.”

The virus trends have improved, he said, but New Mexicans still need to work together to combat the pandemic and its aftermath.

“We have to care for each other and help each other heal,” Mitchell said.

New Mexico is now focusing its limited vaccine supply on health care workers, staffers and residents at long-term care facilities, and Native American communities.

National estimates on when vaccines will be available to the general public range from spring to summer or fall. Dr. Anthony Fauci said last week that the general population could be getting immunized by late March or early April.

Scientists and health officials in New Mexico, however, have repeatedly said it’s too early for people to let their guard down. There’s still uncertainty over whether the vaccines will prevent transmission of the virus, besides just protecting from the effects of the illness. It also takes some time – including two shots, spaced three or four weeks apart – for the vaccines now available to offer full protection.

New Mexico health officials are also keeping an eye on reports of emergence of a more contagious strain of the virus.

“I think next year we’ll still be struggling with the trade-offs between what we know we need to do to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and the increasing impatience folks have to get together more,” Scrase said.

There may be “other peaks ahead of us going forward,” Scrase said, depending on people’s willingness to maintain COVID-safe practices, such as mask wearing and social distancing.

“But I feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel that isn’t an oncoming train,” Scrase said.


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