Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – For U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the toll of COVID-19 is measured in deaths and hospital occupancy rates, but in less visible metrics, too.
During a Tuesday trip to New Mexico, Murthy expressed concern about the mental health implications of the pandemic, particularly among children, and said more resources need to be targeted at an issue that could take years to fully manifest.
“What we’ve been through collectively and individually is trauma,” Murthy said during a Santa Fe event honoring eight health care officials, nurses and scientists from around New Mexico for their role in the state’s pandemic response.
“I’m not sure we’ve seen the worst of it,” added Murthy, who testified during his confirmation hearing in February that seven of his own family members in the U.S. and India died from the coronavirus.
The surgeon general’s trip to New Mexico, his first official travel since being reappointed to the job by President Joe Biden, came at the invitation of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
After arriving in New Mexico, Murthy spent Tuesday meeting with youth leaders at the governor’s official residence in Santa Fe and attending a Lujan Grisham administration Cabinet meeting.
He told the Journal he came to New Mexico in part to thank public health workers for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also to remind state leaders to be vigilant about the “invisible” burden on many frontline workers.
“We’ve got to really focus in on mental health in this next phase of the pandemic response and recognize that this is part of the broader recovery we do,” Murthy said in an interview.
Specifically, he cited a study that said more than half of the nation’s health care workers are dealing with anxiety, depression or suicidal thoughts, while many doctors are struggling with burnout.
On a broader level, New Mexico officials have also voiced concern about the potential for a pandemic-related behavioral health crisis as the state already has high rates of substance abuse and suicide deaths.
Meanwhile, Murthy’s visit came as New Mexico’s COVID-19 infection rate has dropped to its lowest rate since April 2020 and the state’s death rate from the virus is significantly lower than its mid-December peak.
However, the virus has not been fully snuffed out in New Mexico – or in other states – and the state’s death toll increased to 4,359 on Tuesday, with health officials reporting the death of an Otero County woman.
“We know this fight isn’t over,” said Murthy, who was also U.S. surgeon general under former President Barack Obama and is vice admiral of the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps, a uniformed group of roughly 6,700 public health officers that can be deployed in emergency situations.
But he said New Mexico is better positioned than states with lower COVID-19 vaccine rates, which have seen a recent spike in cases due to the Delta variant of the virus.
New Mexico has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates, with 71.7% of state residents 18 and older having gotten at least one shot and 63.6% of adults having received all recommended doses.
The only states with higher vaccine administration rates per capita are Maryland, Massachusetts, Hawaii, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While Murthy said there’s more work to do to convince skeptical individuals to get vaccinated and confront misinformation, he lauded New Mexico’s efforts.
“I came not just to thank you, but to learn,” he said at one point during Tuesday’s event.
As “America’s doctor,” Murthy plays a key role in conveying public health information to the public and has been a co-chairman of Biden’s COVID-19 task force.
The son of immigrants from India, Murthy also spoke Tuesday about the medical clinic his parents ran in Miami after arriving in the United States.
He said many health care workers have had to endure shouts and even death threats for the work they’ve done during the pandemic.
“Nobody in the public will ever know the full extent of what you had to deal with,” he told those honored at the event, which was held at a downtown Santa Fe museum.
“We have been hurt in many ways by this pandemic. It has injured us in ways seen and unseen,” Murthy added. “But that doesn’t mean we can’t grow back stronger.”