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NM identifies first case of new variant

FILE – In this Jan. 7, 2021, file photo syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, Calif. The vaccines are expected to be effective against the new virus variant. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico has detected its first case of the new, potentially more contagious variant of the coronavirus – a discovery that scientists and health officials said underscores the need for residents to wear masks and take other steps to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The state Department of Health announced Wednesday that it had identified the new variant in a case “associated with travel to the UK in December.” The person infected is a Bernalillo County man in his 60s who lives with two family members, according to the department.

Bette Korber, a theoretical biologist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said Wednesday that it isn’t surprising to see the variant surface in New Mexico. It was first detected in the United Kingdom but has been identified in the United States, too.

The presence of the variant, she said, is all the more reason for New Mexicans to wear face coverings, continue social distancing and take other steps to prevent transmission of the disease.

“The appropriate response,” Korber said, “is to be extra careful and be sure to wear your masks.”

Scientists across the world are still studying the new variant, but the early evidence suggests it’s more contagious than other dominant strains.

The variant, known as B117, isn’t believed to be more deadly or cause more serious disease. The vaccines now available are expected to be effective against it, though the variant is still being studied.

Increased transmissibility, nonetheless, could accelerate the spread of COVID-19 in New Mexico.

A statistical modeling report issued by Los Alamos National Laboratory earlier this week described the new variant as “a source of potentially dangerous uncertainty” going forward and said monitoring its spread should be a priority.

The report also said the new strain “represents a potential risk to in-person schooling plans.”

Rules eased for 2 counties

New Mexico on Wednesday updated its public health restrictions for the next two weeks, with most of the state unchanged.

But two small counties in northeastern New Mexico qualified for relaxed restrictions by hitting statistical targets on the spread and prevalence of COVID-19.

Harding County moved into the green level – the least restrictive of the state’s three tiers – while Union County advanced to yellow.

The move means restaurants in each county will be allowed to offer indoor dining at partial capacity.

The rest of the state, however, is in the red, including Catron County, which two weeks ago had qualified for yellow.

The map is updated every two weeks.

To move out of red, a county must meet at least one of two standards: either a COVID-19 test positivity rate of 5% or less or fewer than eight new cases a day per 100,000 people.

Reaching both targets puts a county in the green. Reaching one is enough to advance to the yellow.

Health officials said 11 of the state’s 33 counties – including Santa Fe – had positivity rates below 10%.

Bernalillo County’s test positivity rate was at 10.5%, with 51.5 cases a day per 100,000 people.

Average of new cases falls

New Mexico’s coronavirus death toll climbed above 2,800 Wednesday as the state reported another 13 deaths.

The victims ranged in age from a state inmate in his 40s to a Doña Ana County woman over 100.

New Mexico’s official virus-related death toll now stands at 2,807.

The state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases, however, continued to improve. New Mexico has averaged about 1,300 cases a day over the past week, a 7% drop from the average two days ago.

The test positivity rate also fell to 11.1% in the most recent period tracked by the state, after hitting 15.6% at one point last week.

Vaccinations at the Pit

To help combat the pandemic, the University of New Mexico said the Pit will become a coronavirus vaccination site, starting next Wednesday. New Mexicans are encouraged to sign up at to be notified when their vaccine is available.

Health officials said the Pit is an ideal vaccination site because it has room for people to spread out. UNM health officials said they believe they can vaccinate 3,000 people a day at the arena, in Southeast Albuquerque.

“We know that immunity is not instantaneous after vaccination,” Dr. Douglas Ziedonis, executive vice president for UNM Health Sciences and CEO of the UNM Health System, said in a written statement. “It will take time, but this is the light at the end of the tunnel we have all been searching and hoping for. It will be important for New Mexicans to register on the DOH website, get vaccinated and return for their second dose when instructed to do so.”

Even with use of the Pit, UNM student-athletes will wait their turn for the vaccine, university officials said.

The state’s next priority is adults 75 and older, because of the limited supply of vaccines.

Almost 200,000 doses of the vaccine have been delivered to New Mexico. Full protection requires two doses per person, each shot administered a few weeks apart.

Virus mutations normal

Korber said New Mexicans should not panic at news of the new variant. Scientists are studying the variant and other mutations carefully, she said, to determine the impact.

“It’s showing up all over the place,” Korber said in an interview. “It’s not surprising it’s showing up here.”

Virus mutations are normal, she said.

The Department of Health said the New Mexico man infected with the variant is recovering from “very mild illness” and wasn’t hospitalized.

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