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NM’s recovery from COVID-19 backslides

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico’s quest for greater economic reopening amid the pandemic took a step backward Wednesday, with nine counties regressing to levels requiring more public health restrictions.

Overall, the state’s latest update shows a little more than half the state’s 33 counties achieved turquoise or green status. At those levels, there are higher limits on maximum capacity at businesses and restaurants.

But compared with two weeks ago, there are six fewer counties at the turquoise level. Two weeks ago there were 10 counties at the yellow level, and now there are 15, including Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana counties. The primary reason for the changes was increases in new COVID-19 cases reported. And for the first time in a month, New Mexico had one county designated at the red level, which has the most restrictions on business: Colfax County.

But Dr. David Scrase, secretary for the state Human Services Department, urged New Mexicans not to get discouraged.

At a press update Wednesday, Scrase said the state is devising a new method to judge the COVID-19 risk in a given county and the level of restrictions imposed on businesses. The change could be ready in two weeks, he said.

Currently, the state assesses risk based on the average test positivity in a county and the per capita daily incidence of new cases.

But the state hopes to soon consider a county’s vaccination data, a factor that could help the more populous counties, including Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana, improve their yellow designations to green, Scrase said.

Moving from yellow to green allows businesses and restaurants to raise indoor capacity from 33% to 50% of the maximum. A county that sustains the green level health metrics for four weeks moves into the turquoise level, which permits 75% of maximum indoor capacity.

“By my way of thinking, we will be an almost completely green and turquoise state by the end of May at the latest,” Scrase said.

Still to be ironed out is obtaining the number of COVID-19 vaccines administered by federal agencies in each county, he said. According to the state vaccine dashboard, about 8% of New Mexicans who have been at least partially vaccinated received their shots through federal agencies, such as the Indian Health Service, the Department of Defense or the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I believe that every time we vaccinate another 5% of individuals we are closer to defeating this virus, and closer to getting everyone to green,” Scrase said.

The new county-by-county risk map released Wednesday prompted Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, to call for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to fully reopen the state.

“Unfortunately, the inevitable came to pass, and New Mexico businesses are again facing more restrictions,” he said in a statement. “Because of her failure to remove or adapt the lockdown framework, business owners from some counties now have their livelihood in jeopardy because of less than a dozen cases in the entire county.”

With more than half of New Mexico residents having received at least one dose of the vaccine, Pirtle added, “There is no logical, scientific, moral, or ethical reason to keep our state closed down.”

Health officials noted a plateau in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, if not a slight uptick.

In the color-coded assessment released Wednesday, for instance, Bernalillo County had 11.30 cases per 100,000. That marked an increase from 9.4 cases per 100,000 two weeks ago and is still too high to meet the current eight cases per capita metric that would allow for greater reopening.

“The fact is there is just a lot more spread of coronavirus in Albuquerque than there is in most places in the state, and that’s why they’re yellow,” Scrase said.

Dr. Tracie Collins, secretary of the state Department of Health, said the supply of vaccines in New Mexico is now meeting demand, with 104,440 doses in this week’s allocation.

Even with 57% of New Mexicans having received at least one dose of vaccine, Collins said, there is more work to do to get more people vaccinated. Scrase said: “The longer it takes for us to get a sufficient number of people vaccinated, the longer it’s going to take us to get back to normal.”

The state DOH on Wednesday reported 187 new COVID-19 cases, including 69 in Bernalillo County, and 10 additional deaths.

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