Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Despite having one of the nation’s highest vaccine administration rates, New Mexico has not avoided a national surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.
A “delta wave” prompted by a contagious variant of the virus has caused new cases statewide to reach a six-month high and generated debate about vaccine and face mask mandates.
But top health officials say New Mexico is in a much different position than it was one year ago – largely due to elevated immunity levels from those who have recovered from the virus and the 65.3% of state residents age 18 and older who have gotten all shots necessary to be fully vaccinated.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the state could see a rise in deaths related to COVID-19 in the coming weeks, as spikes in death rates have tended to lag behind increases in cases and hospitalizations during the pandemic.
However, he also said it’s likely that most deaths would be among unvaccinated individuals, as those vaccinated who contract the virus typically have milder symptoms.
Of the more than 1.1 million fully vaccinated New Mexicans, only 173 had been hospitalized since February – or about 0.015%.
“My hope is that the vaccine is going to protect us from a lot of hospitalizations and deaths,” Scrase said in a recent interview.
Despite the built-up immunity, Scrase and top hospital officials have expressed concern there might be little space for patients at hospitals statewide if the surge continues.
The University of New Mexico Hospital has been nearly full for several months, although COVID-19 patients only make up about 5% of the total number of individuals hospitalized, said Rohini McKee, the hospital’s chief quality and safety officer.
Many of the non-virus patients hospitalized are getting treatment after putting off health care issues during the pandemic, while trauma-related hospitalizations have also been higher than normal.
“As we look at this potential upcoming surge, we won’t have a lot of capacity,” McKee told the Journal.
However, she said that if virus cases continue to surge in the coming weeks, the hospital has a plan that involves converting some hospital spaces into patient rooms.
Meanwhile, Presbyterian Healthcare Services, which operates nine hospitals around New Mexico, has seen hospitalizations due to COVID-19 more than double since early July – from an average of 31 patients to 74 patients as of Friday.
However, COVID-19 patients represented only about 10% of the hospital chain’s total staffed bed capacity, Presbyterian spokeswoman Melanie Mozes said.
Surge since reopening
The recent resurgence of COVID-19 cases and a steady rise in hospitalizations comes after New Mexico eliminated its pandemic-related business capacity limits July 1 as cases declined steadily.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has urged New Mexico higher-education institutions and businesses to adopt vaccine policies but has not indicated it plans to bring back business restrictions after such policies last year led to a surge of unemployment claims.
Statewide, 94% of the new confirmed virus cases since Feb. 1 have been among unvaccinated individuals, according to state Department of Health data.
In addition, about 98% of the 537 virus-related deaths were among unvaccinated individuals, and unvaccinated individuals made up 93% of the roughly 2,500 who were hospitalized since Feb. 1, according to the DOH data.
However, the vaccine has been available to all New Mexicans ages 12 and older only since May, and Scrase said health officials were working to compile a more recent breakdown of cases, hospitalizations and deaths by vaccination status.
At the University of New Mexico Hospital, McKee said about 90% of the patients admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 symptoms over the last few weeks were not vaccinated against the virus.
“We have very, very few patients who have been hospitalized who received the vaccine,” McKee said.
‘Not the same virus’
Scrase, who said he wore two face masks to a legislative hearing in the state Capitol last week as an added precaution, said other countries that have had waves driven by the delta variant have typically witnessed a three-month spike in cases and hospitalizations.
That could mean New Mexico might still be in the early stages of such a surge, as cases statewide started to trend upward in early July.
And the largest growth in new COVID-19 infections in recent weeks has occurred in New Mexico counties with lagging vaccination rates.
The four counties with the highest average rate of new virus cases over a recent seven-day period were Hidalgo, Eddy, Lincoln and Roosevelt – all of which have vaccine rates lower than the statewide rate of 65.3% of residents with all necessary shots to be fully vaccinated.
The combination of regional vaccine discrepancies, new virus strains, largely full hospitals and political disagreements could mark the next chapter of New Mexico’s COVID-19 response, even if many state residents are eager to put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.
“This is not the same virus we saw last October and last summer,” said Scrase, who is also acting secretary of the Department of Health. “This is a different pandemic.”