COVID-19 outbreak prompts scrutiny

Jose Villegas, an Army National Guard medic, gives a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine during a drive-up vaccination event at Albuquerque’s Tingley Coliseum in January. Virus cases and hospitalizations have surged in New Mexico in recent weeks, especially in parts of the state with lower vaccination rates. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The number of new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations in New Mexico surged Thursday, continuing a troubling trend that has renewed questions about the capacity of a state hospital system that’s already dealing with high occupancy rates and staffing shortages.

State health officials reported 1,281 new cases, though 331 of those infections from Lea County are old cases – they date back over the course of at least six months – but were not previously reported due to data delays.

An official with Nor-Lea Hospital District in Lovington said later Thursday the unreported cases stemmed from a technical failure involving rapid test results, but said patients were notified promptly whether they had tested negative or positive for the virus.

In addition, the hospital’s marketing and foundation manager Jordan Benard said COVID-19 patients make up half the hospital’s current occupancy, but said no patients have been transferred from neighboring Texas, which has seen explosive virus growth.

“Nor-Lea Hospital District regrets the error,” Benard said. “However, all patients who tested positive throughout this period were notified promptly and given appropriate counseling.”

Even with those older cases excluded, the 950 new cases reported Thursday included 281 infections in Lea County and came just one day after top state health officials said a surge in cases 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.

“Trends have been going in the absolute wrong direction, and that seems to me mostly due to the highly contagious (delta) variant,” state epidemiologist Christine Ross told reporters during a briefing this week.

Like other southeastern New Mexico counties, the COVID-19 vaccination rate in Lea County lags behind the statewide average.

A total of 43.4% of Lea County had gotten all vaccine doses necessary to be fully vaccinated as of Thursday, compared to the state rate of 65.7% of state residents age 18 and older who have completed their vaccine series, according to state Department of Health data.

State data released this week also shows a total of 92.6% of new COVID-19 cases statewide and 92.8% of virus-related hospitalizations since February have occurred in unvaccinated individuals.

However, state Human Services Secretary David Scrase said this week vaccinated individuals can still contract and spread the virus, even though they typically have milder symptoms than unvaccinated residents.

Meanwhile, state health officials also reported Thursday that 293 people were hospitalized around New Mexico with COVID-19 symptoms.

That marked a significant increase from a day earlier when 258 individuals were hospitalized due to the virus. It also represented a roughly 280% increase from a month ago, when there were 77 virus-related hospitalizations.

The recent surge in new cases and hospitalizations is happening despite the fact New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest vaccine administration rates – trailing only Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont, according to recent data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Other states have seen even worse outbreaks, such as neighboring Texas that has a rate of COVID-19 spread that is approaching record-high levels.

New Mexico’s death rate from the virus remains far below the state’s mid-December peak, though state health officials reported four additional deaths Thursday that brought the state’s death toll to 4,441 since the pandemic hit the state in March 2020.

With a new school year underway in New Mexico and most students attending classes in person, the recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations has also generated debate about vaccine and face mask policies.

During this week’s briefing, Scrase cited recent modeling from Los Alamos National Laboratory statisticians that found universal mask-wearing in schools could lead to fewer new COVID-19 cases than if only limited mask-wearing policies are in place.

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