Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s latest COVID-19 surge could lead to more than 1,000 new virus cases a day by the end of this month – the highest level since January and more than 10 times higher than in early July, top state health officials said Wednesday.
The explosive virus spread, primarily among unvaccinated individuals, could strain a state hospital system already dealing with high occupancy rates and staffing shortages, while also renewing questions about large public events, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said.
He said the recent increase in new cases and hospitalizations is primarily due to the contagious delta variant, adding that vaccinated residents can still contract and spread the virus even though they typically have milder symptoms than unvaccinated individuals.
“We’re just assuming that every case now, for the most part, is delta,” Scrase said during an online news briefing Wednesday.
With new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations rising again after steadily declining for much of the first six months of 2021, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said this week that “everything is on the table” when it comes to New Mexico’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus.
But the Democratic governor said it’s unlikely business capacity restrictions would be reimposed by her administration. She said the state instead will continue to push for workplace vaccine policies.
“Everything has to be always on the table, or you’re not taking seriously that we’re in the middle of a worldwide, deadly virus,” Lujan Grisham said in a news conference Tuesday at the Governor’s Office.
New Mexico was one of the last states to eliminate business restrictions when the Lujan Grisham administration did away with a color-coded statewide system on July 1, although the state recommends that masks to be worn in accordance with current guidelines issued by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC recently released new guidelines that fully vaccinated individuals in parts of the country with “substantial or high transmission” of COVID-19 should resume wearing masks in indoor public settings, in addition to other circumstances.
All but two counties in New Mexico – Harding and Taos – currently meet that definition.
The federal agency had previously released relaxed mask guidelines for vaccinated individuals, though it still recommends that unvaccinated individuals wear masks in all indoor public settings.
Driven in part by an aggressive outreach campaign and financial incentives, New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 vaccine administration rates.
As of Wednesday, a total of 74.3% state residents ages 18 and older had received at least one shot of the vaccine, while 65.6% were fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Health data.
However, the vaccination rate is much lower in some parts of the state.
For instance, southeastern New Mexico has a fully vaccinated rate of under 40% and could be hit particularly hard by the current surge in new cases and hospitalizations, said Scrase, who is also acting secretary of the state Department of Health.
He also said some patients are already being transferred from Roswell to Albuquerque for treatment.
New Mexico State Epidemiologist Christine Ross, who also took part in Wednesday’s briefing, said that the COVID-19 vaccine will eventually help end the pandemic but that current vaccination rates are too low for that to happen.
“If we can stop transmission, we can stop opportunities for this virus to continue to mutate,” Ross said.
Meanwhile, the number of deaths related to COVID-19 in New Mexico has remained far below a mid-December peak, with 11 virus-related fatalities reported by state health officials in a recent 14-day period.
But Scrase, who said he is quarantining at his home for 10 days after being near a friend who later tested positive for COVID-19, has warned the death rate could tick up in the coming weeks – particularly among the unvaccinated.
And modeling released this week by Los Alamos National Laboratory statisticians said the state could average from two to six virus-related deaths per day for the rest of this month and early September.
7 deaths reported
State health officials reported seven additional deaths due to COVID-19 on Wednesday, although three of the deaths occurred previously and were only recently determined to be related to the virus.
Most of the seven were elderly residents with underlying health conditions, although two were men in their 40s – one in Bernalillo County and one in Doña Ana County.
In addition, 258 people were hospitalized statewide due to COVID-19 – up from 77 one month ago.
Of those hospitalized since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March 2020, 21% have died, according to state Department of Health data.