New Mexico virus cases inch up as US cases dip - Albuquerque Journal

New Mexico virus cases inch up as US cases dip

Povi Talachy, the molecular section coordinator in Christus St. Vincent Regional Laboratory, processes a COVID-19 test in Santa Fe on Tuesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The number of daily COVID-19 cases in New Mexico hit an unusual equilibrium over the past month, failing to recede, even as the nation has seen a dip in new infections.

The leveling out has kept New Mexico’s seven-day rolling average at roughly 600 to 800 cases a day for the monthlong period ending Oct. 10, the latest four-week time frame with full data available, according to the state Department of Health.

It has persisted even as the national case average has fallen by 36% over the same period.

New Mexico’s flat trend has frustrated health officials hoping for a decline as hospitals and intensive care units remain full – a result not just of COVID-19 infections, but also people seeking care after having delayed hospital visits earlier in the pandemic.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said New Mexico’s stable case rate is influenced by the number of people getting vaccinated and public behavior, such as the wearing of masks indoors.

The plateau, he said, suggests neither factor is changing much.

“To drive cases lower, we have to pull one of those levers,” Mitchell said in an interview. “The best lever, of course, is vaccination.”

The share of New Mexico adults who are fully vaccinated has climbed just 2 percentage points over the past four weeks, reaching 71.9% on Tuesday. About 53.7% of kids ages 12 to 17 have completed their shots.

The pace of vaccinations could accelerate next month when a COVID-19 vaccine is expected to be approved for children 5 to 11.

Mitchell said the COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective, and will help protect others, not just the person who gets the shot.

“The upside is we have a solution, which is to get vaccinated,” Mitchell said of the plateau, “and that’s where I think we need to focus.”

Dr. David Scrase, who leads the human services and health departments in New Mexico, said in a public briefing this week that the plateau may be evolving into a slight increase in cases, though test results for the past few days are still coming in.

He shared a bar chart showing the state’s rolling seven-day average fluctuating generally between 600 and 800 cases a day between Sept. 12 and Oct. 10. The dates correspond to when the specimen were collected for testing, not the day the cases are announced to the public.

The trend bottoms out around 600 on Sept. 21 before climbing slowly into October.

“We’re now in week six of a plateau or gradual rise in cases,” Scrase said Monday.

Federal data shows a similar increase. New Mexico’s daily case average climbed about 18% in the 30-day period ending Oct. 12, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Colorado saw a similar trend, its case totals growing about 22% over that period. Texas and Arizona, by contrast, saw decreases – Texas dramatically so.

The nation as a whole also saw a decline. The seven-day average plunged from about 142,000 cases on Sept. 12 to 92,000 on Oct. 10, a 36% decline.

New Mexico’s leveling out of cases comes after the highly contagious delta variant of the virus fueled a dramatic surge in cases late this summer.

In a written statement Tuesday, State Epidemiologist Christine Ross said case rates and trends vary widely throughout the nation.

“We don’t have an ‘answer’ as to why we saw this plateau,” she said, “but we can probably reasonably expect a downward trend soon, given what we know about the delta surges and national trends.”

New Mexico reported 517 new cases Tuesday, similar to the 540 cases announced two weeks ago. Tuesday’s totals included 171 infections in Bernalillo County.

The Department of Health also announced 10 more COVID-19 deaths, adults ranging in age from their 20s to their 70s. The statewide death toll is 4,952.

The state also reported 350 patients hospitalized for COVID-19, a 14% increase over the previous week.

New Mexico issued an order this week allowing hospitals to activate crisis standards of care if needed, a move that grants some legal protection for doctors called on to work outside their normal scope of practice. The order is also intended to standardize decision-making when the demand for intensive care beds or other resources outstrips the supply.

The full hospitals aren’t entirely attributable to COVID-19 infections. Doctors and nurses say they are seeing sicker patients – and more of them – than usual for a host of medical conditions.

“We have a lot more people in the hospital right now with non-COVID-related illnesses, some of which we believe are related to delays in care during the worst part of the pandemic,” Scrase said.

The bulk of the COVID-19 infections are preventable, health officials say, if people get vaccinated.

Individuals who aren’t fully vaccinated made up about 90% of the COVID-19 deaths, 82% of the hospitalizations and 76% of the cases in a recent four-week period, according to state data.

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