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Touting a significant improvement in case counts, New Mexico officials on Wednesday said more than half the state’s counties have moved beyond the strictest COVID-19-related restrictions.
That includes the state’s most populous counties – Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Doña Ana – which have advanced to the state’s yellow level from the red designation. That means limited indoor dining is allowed and certain other public health measures are relaxed.
They are among 15 total New Mexico counties now in yellow. Four other counties have now achieved the green and least-restrictive status: Catron, Harding, Sierra and Union.
“I know that it’s been a long, tough, uphill road but, New Mexicans, we’re resilient and we’re strong. … Today is a day to really feel good about the collective efforts of the state,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday afternoon in a livestreamed COVID-19 update.
Her office on Wednesday also announced that it is lifting travel quarantine requirements due to the improving picture.
Beginning Thursday, New Mexico will no longer require self-quarantine for visitors or New Mexicans arriving into the state. The order had required a 14-day quarantine for those coming into New Mexico from most other states.
The Governor’s Office is still advising people to quarantine upon entering the state and to take a COVID-19 test.
As for college athletics, though both the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State University’s home counties transitioned from red to yellow status on Wednesday, that does not change the public health order’s current prohibition of home games for either the Lobos or Aggies basketball teams or any of their spring sport teams that have recently started competitions.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged that opening up more businesses and loosening travel restrictions creates risk. And state officials emphasized the need to remain vigilant and continue taking precautions to slow the virus’ spread.
“We wouldn’t have created this system and made these decisions … if we didn’t think we could manage them,” she said.
While announcing the relaxed restrictions, the state on Wednesday also reported 512 new COVID-19 cases and 31 new deaths.
While Lujan Grisham acknowledged the day’s “high mortality rate,” she said the state’s average daily COVID-19 case count has dropped by 66% over the past month. And health officials are hopeful that the death rate will continue to fall based on current case counts.
The state is now averaging about 449 new cases and 17.7 COVID-related deaths, down from peaks of about 2,600 cases and 35.86 deaths in November and December, respectively. Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said patients can be hospitalized for weeks prior to dying and there are often complications in reporting COVID-related deaths, so he’s hopeful the state’s death rate will continue to decline as cases have done.
“I think we are now finally seeing that,” he said.
The state has established a three-tiered system, designating each county in either red, yellow or green. As a county moves from red to green, public health measures put in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus can be relaxed.
In red, some of the restrictions include capping gatherings at five people, no indoor dining and houses of worship are capped at 25% occupancy. In yellow, people can gather in groups of 10, restaurants can offer indoor dining at 25% capacity and places of worship can be one-third full. In green, indoor dining can go up to 50% occupancy, churches can also be half full and people can gather in groups up to 20 people, according to the health department’s website.
Every two weeks, the Department of Health updates a map showing each county’s COVID test positivity and the number of new cases per capita. Restrictions in each county can be relaxed if the test positivity rate is 5% or less or if the county is averaging fewer than eight daily cases per 100,000 people.
Scrase said the tiered system was designed to accurately reflect the spread of the virus in a community.
“When we were wrestling … about setting up the red-yellow-green, our biggest concern at the time was creating a system that didn’t let people bounce back and forth all the time. Because that’s more difficult for businesses,” he said. “I think that two-week period helps us smooth out the data.”
When the map was last updated on Jan. 27, Harding County was in the green tier. Colfax, Grant, Los Alamos, San Miguel, Socorro, Sierra and Union counties were in yellow and the other 25 counties were in red.
Bernalillo, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Doña Ana, reached yellow by having a positivity rate under 5%.
The other counties in yellow are Cibola, Colfax, Curry, Grant, Guadalupe, Los Alamos, Mora, Quay, San Miguel, Taos and Valencia.
And while four counties have reached green status, they still face business restrictions. Close-contact recreation businesses, such as movie theaters and bars and nightclubs, will still remain closed.
New Mexico Senate Republican leadership, in a statement after the governor’s announcement, raised concerns that those businesses don’t currently have a path to open.
“The reality is, most of our businesses remain 75% closed and most of our children are still out of school. With a higher death rate than most other states, there is little if any proof that the governor’s extended closures are working,” said Sens. Greg Baca of Belen, Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho and Mark Moores of Albuquerque. “Meanwhile, our students continue to suffer and our businesses continue to hang on by thread. It is time that we stop patting ourselves on the back and get serious about curing the ailments created by the pandemic and this administration.”
Lujan Grisham said during the briefing that if cases continue to decline and the number of vaccines coming to the state continues to increase, counties and businesses could see fewer public health orders in a yet-to-be-created “green-plus” tier.
“If we crush the virus so it’s not really able to move around … we should be looking forward to a full season of tourism, getting everyone back to school and having a few limitations on those activities,” Lujan Grisham said. “That’s the goal. That’s the desire.”
One reason cases are declining is because of the rollout of the vaccine.
Officials said 18 times more New Mexicans are getting vaccines each day than are testing positive.
A state vaccine dashboard shows that 365,297 vaccines have been administered. Of those doses, about 264,000 people have received their first shot and about 101,000 have received a second dose. The state has administered over 65,000 doses of vaccine in the past seven days, according to the dashboard.
That’s in addition to about 112,000 doses of vaccine that have been delivered to federal agencies including the Veterans Affairs, Indian Health Services and the Bureau of Prisons.
Scrase said modeling done by Los Alamos National Laboratory shows that already the number of COVID cases in New Mexico has declined 16% because of the vaccinations alone.
“The vaccine is working and we’re beginning to see an effect,” he said.
Meanwhile, major pharmacy chains across the country announced they will soon begin offering vaccines through a partnership with the federal government. As part of that program, Walgreens will start giving vaccines to eligible New Mexicans beginning Friday at roughly 70 stores in the state. A Walgreens spokeswoman said residents should register for those vaccines through the state health department.
“At this time, vaccine inventory remains very limited and is available only to eligible individuals, which includes adults age 75 and older,” Emily Delnicki of Walgreens said in an email.