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Restrictions on business and other commercial activities loosened in 17 New Mexico counties on Wednesday, but Bernalillo and Sandoval counties are stuck in the more restrictive yellow status because new COVID-19 case counts are still too high.
Meanwhile, a three-week state effort to get teachers and staffers vaccinated in time for school reopenings in April appears to be working.
State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins reported Wednesday that 82% of the 62,000 or so educators who have registered on the state Department of Health website for a vaccination have received at least one dose and that 32% are fully vaccinated. It wasn’t clear how many others in that category may have received COVID-19 vaccinations outside the registry system.
Following federal guidance aimed at getting students back in the classroom, New Mexico officials said certain essential workers, including teachers, staffers and early childhood professionals, would be given priority in March over other eligible groups, such as those with chronic conditions or those ages 75 and older.
Nearly two in five New Mexicans have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Collins said in a press update Wednesday. Next week’s allocation to New Mexico will be 116,280 doses, including 12,100 doses of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson brand.
Meanwhile, the threat of COVID-19 appears to be decreasing in many of the less populated counties, while the majority of the state’s 33 counties are at or approaching the least restrictive levels on commercial and day-to-day activities.
The number of counties hitting the least restrictive level, turquoise, increased to 13 from seven counties two weeks ago, and three new counties joined seven others in green status. Ten are at the yellow level, and none were designated red, signifying the highest risk.
“The state is just making great progress,” said Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase. “More than two-thirds of our counties are either green or turquoise. That’s exactly what we wanted to see.”
The state’s color-coded map reflects the per capita daily incidence of new cases in each county for the past two weeks and the average COVID-19 test positivity within county borders.
But those criteria are expected to change.
Scrase said health officials are “going to make some adjustments in the methodology in the short run and then in the long run.”
Since the county-by-county reopening system was launched in December, the number of COVID-19 tests has declined, given the uptick in vaccinations. And that affects a county’s overall test positivity rate.
“We don’t want to start penalizing counties as that test positivity rate moves up,” Scrase said. He said that state health officials haven’t decided what new metrics to use but that they want to adopt ones that “are the best possible reflection of disease activity.”
As to when the state will ultimately lift all restrictions, Scrase said, “It is too early to know for sure. It’s kind of like being in a race and you’ve signed up for the race, but you don’t actually know where the finish line is going to be.”
The current state reopening framework imposes the fewest restrictions on turquoise-level counties, or those that sustain for four consecutive weeks a new COVID-19 case incident rate of no more than 8 cases per 100,000 inhabitants and an average percentage of positive COVID-19 test results no greater than 5%.
Businesses in those counties can operate at 75% of maximum occupancy, including indoor dining, and 33% maximum occupancy for bars and clubs.
The green level, which requires both low case numbers and a low percentage of positive tests for the previous two weeks, permits 50% of maximum occupancy and 25% of capacity for bars and clubs.
But yellow status, in which a county has met only one of the two criteria, keeps retail spaces at 33% of maximum occupancy and restaurants at 25% of capacity for indoor dining. Bars and clubs may not operate.
Although all New Mexico counties have been meeting the low test positivity rate, new case counts are holding back some of the most populated New Mexico counties from reopening more fully.
In the yellow category, for instance, Bernalillo County’s average per capita new case count was 9.80, and on Wednesday, the state reported 52 new cases in the county.
Sandoval County’s per capita count was 9.30, and Valencia County appeared to nearly hit green status, with 8.30 new daily cases per capita. Sandoval County had 22 new cases on Wednesday, but only nine new cases per capita were reported in Valencia County over the past two weeks.
On Wednesday, Doña Ana County had the highest one-day total of new COVID-19 cases, 59. The county remained in yellow status, reporting 15.20 cases per 100,000.
The state reported 218 additional COVID-19 cases Wednesday and six deaths.