NM encourages testing, masks as infections spike

In this file photo, Carlos Lee, right, the assistant principal at Aspen Community School in Santa Fe, talks with 8th graders Unique Gonzales, 14, and Max Encinias, 14, left, in their internet cafe set up in a hallway at the school. Health officials are encouraging people regardless of vaccination status to wear masks indoors when outside the home. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – As the delta variant fuels another explosion in cases, Human Services Secretary David Scrase urged New Mexicans – regardless of whether they’re vaccinated – to get tested if they show any symptoms of COVID-19.

He also encouraged residents, even if vaccinated, to wear a mask in indoor settings outside their own household.

In a public briefing Wednesday, Scrase said the more-contagious delta variant now makes up 75% or more of the infections in New Mexico and is contributing to a rise in cases similar to the rapid growth the state endured last year after Labor Day.

Large hospitals in Albuquerque are “over full,” he said, and it’s critical to stay on guard against the disease through increased testing, mask-wearing and vaccination.

The Department of Health reported four recent COVID-19 deaths Wednesday, one death from a month or more ago and 329 new cases of the disease.

Coronavirus hospitalizations climbed to 133 patients – more than twice as many as June 30.

Scrase said people who are fully vaccinated still have a role to play in managing the pandemic. Given how contagious the delta variant is, he said, people should get tested for the disease and isolate themselves if they test positive, regardless of vaccine status.

Even if you’re vaccinated, health officials said, you could still spread the delta variant. Individuals who are vaccinated may experience only mild symptoms, such as a cough, runny nose, congestion or fever.

But “if you have symptoms,” Scrase said, “get tested. It’s the only way we can contain this disease.”

He and Deputy Health Secretary Laura Chanchien Parajon also pleaded with New Mexicans who aren’t vaccinated to get the shot.

It provides strong protection, they said, against the delta variant.

Parajon estimated that 97% of hospitalizations are among people who aren’t vaccinated.

“It’s a personal choice, we understand that,” she said, “but we really encourage people to talk to their providers, talk to people they trust to get their questions answered.”

Scrase said New Mexico is seeing some concerning trends, including a four-fold increase in new daily cases this month. He estimated 75% to 80% of the cases are the delta variant.

The rocketing growth is similar to the spike in cases New Mexico saw after Labor Day last year, though Scrase said New Mexico’s vaccination rate will ensure cases don’t reach the same peak they did last year.

About 65% of New Mexicans 18 and older have completed their vaccine shots.

New Mexico hospitals, Scrase said, are largely full – a result of COVID-19 cases, routine medical procedures and emergency care necessary after people delayed treatment at the height of the pandemic.

But he said hospitals also have some ability to stretch their capacity if needed.

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce questioned whether anyone would follow the Lujan Grisham administration’s recommendation for increased mask-wearing.

“The Governor has become irrelevant as she arbitrarily makes these COVID-related decisions,” he said in a written statement.

Scrase said New Mexico’s public health order simply directs people to follow the latest guidance from the U.S. Centers on Disease Control and Prevention for masks. The CDC guidelines were updated this week.

Scrase also shared an anecdote from a fellow physician who listened as a patient expressed regret about not getting the vaccine. The patient and his wife, both in their 80s, died.

“Ending a life because of a choice not to take a proven therapy – I’m just pleading with New Mexicans to really think this through, carefully,” Scrase said.

The state’s official coronavirus-related death toll stands at 4,407 residents.

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