Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s delta wave of COVID-19 cases could be cresting more rapidly than previously thought, with top state health officials saying Wednesday that the number of new virus cases statewide has decreased over the past week.
While Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration moved to extend an indoor face mask mandate for at least another month, the improving virus outlook appears to be showing up especially in public schools that, in many cases, endured a bumpy start to the academic year.
Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus said the number of infectious new cases involving public school students and staffers dropped from 806 to 504 over a recent weeklong period – a 37% decline.
He also said there were no serious discussions about returning to a statewide remote learning model, even given the recent surge in new COVID-19 cases that prompted 30 schools statewide to temporarily shift to remote learning due to local case spikes.
“Kids do better when they’re able to come to school, so we’re working really hard to keep schools open and keep them safe,” said Steinhaus, who added that all schools that temporarily shifted to remote learning have since resumed in-person classes.
He also said the Public Education Department has not temporarily closed any schools, saying the agency was engaged in a “full-court press” to safely keep schools open to students.
New Mexico schools were closed to in-person learning for much of the 2020-21 school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed the lives of 4,649 state residents as of Wednesday.
However, top officials in the Lujan Grisham administration have acknowledged the shortcomings of remote learning as the pandemic has stretched on.
“Remote learning is not something we can all live with for the long haul,” acting state Health Secretary David Scrase said during a remote Wednesday briefing with reporters.
Steinhaus, appointed by the governor to lead the Public Education Department in July, said state and local officials have been working to increase COVID-19 testing options, including access to on-site school testing for students and teachers.
Given the increase in testing, he said the test positivity rate among school staffers has dropped from 4.5% in early August – around when the school year started in many New Mexico districts – to 0.74% as of last week.
New Mexico’s recent surge in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations prompted the Lujan Grisham administration to reimpose a face mask mandate for indoor public settings, among other actions.
The mask mandate, which applies to all state residents regardless of their vaccination status, was scheduled to expire Wednesday, but has been extended through at least Oct. 15 under a revised public health order issued by Scrase.
While the mask requirement has drawn criticism, state health officials say it has played a key role in reducing virus spread in New Mexico since it was reimposed in mid-August.
The statewide average test positivity rate over a weeklong period has dropped from 9% as of Aug. 19 to 6.5% as of this week, according to state Department of Health data.
“If not for the health of yourself, your family, your neighbors and your colleagues, then for the continued economic recovery of our state and nation: I urge New Mexicans to get vaccinated, mask up and continue to social distance,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement Wednesday.
Meanwhile, most of the state’s new cases and virus-related hospitalizations over the past month are attributable to unvaccinated individuals.
While some vaccinated residents have tested positive for the virus, a total of 88.4% of those hospitalized during a four-week period ending this week were not vaccinated, according to state Department of Health data.
And, of the 123 individuals who died of COVID-19 during that time period, 120 of them – or 97.6% – were unvaccinated, Scrase said Wednesday.
Statewide, 79% of New Mexicans age 18 and older had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, while 69.2% of adults had received all shots necessary to be fully vaccinated.
A separate New Mexico public health order requiring that hospital employees, corrections officers and other workers in group home settings get the COVID-19 vaccine or risk losing their jobs remains in place and does not have a set expiration date.
Statewide, the number of those hospitalized due to the virus rose to 375 people, up from Tuesday, but still lower than the figure from earlier this month.
A total of 690 new confirmed COVID-19 cases were reported Wednesday – up slightly from the average of 614 new cases per day over the past week.
However, that figure was down from an average of nearly 778 new confirmed cases per day the previous week.
State health officials also reported 18 additional deaths due to the virus. While most of those who died were elderly residents with underlying health conditions, the victims included a woman in her 20s from Mora County and a woman in her 30s from Santa Fe County.