Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – More than a year and a half after the COVID-19 pandemic hit New Mexico, the state’s death toll due to the virus has surpassed 5,000 – or nearly the entire population of Tucumcari.
Statewide, the number of individuals whose deaths have been directly caused by COVID-19 or related to virus complications is now more than double the state’s fatalities from World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, which combined killed roughly 2,400 New Mexicans.
The state crossed the grim threshold of 5,000 deaths Monday, when state health officials reported 15 additional deaths due to the virus statewide. Those deaths brought the state’s toll to 5,002 since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March 2020.
And the death toll from the COVID-19 pandemic is still rising.
The overwhelming majority of deaths have occurred among those who were unvaccinated. Vaccine shots were not widely available to New Mexico adults until this spring, when more than 3,000 residents had already died.
Some vaccinated residents have also died during the recent surge of cases fueled by the highly contagious delta variant of the virus, but acting state Health Secretary David Scrase said in a recent interview that about 1,000 of the state’s more recent deaths related to the virus likely could have been prevented if individuals had gotten the COVID-19 vaccine.
“I think you can say that every unvaccinated death is preventable,” he said.
During a four-week period that ended last week, unvaccinated New Mexicans were 40.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than vaccinated individuals, according to Department of Health data.
Scrase, a physician who has emerged as the face of the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the virus over the last 19 months, said the deaths have left voids across New Mexico.
“These are real,” Scrase told the Journal. “They aren’t just 5,000 people – you have to take into account all the friends and family members that are impacted.
“Every death is a tragedy. Every death leaves behind a family that’s grieving.”
From his hospital bed, Frede Frazier told his daughter he underestimated the virus and had never felt so sick in his life. It was late July, and the 57-year-old had contracted pneumonia in both lungs as a result of COVID-19.
Frazier, a resident of Melrose, a village west of Clovis, promised to get vaccinated as soon as he was released.
“He told me as long as it meant that he would live longer to spend time with his grandsons, he would get the vaccine,” Cheyenne Cruz told the Journal. “Unfortunately, it was too late.”
Cruz said her father died Aug. 21 after spending more than a month on a ventilator.
“He wasn’t just my dad; he and my son were very, very, very close. My son called him Opo,” Cruz said. “My dad had so many plans with my son. He was very important. That’s the hardest part – I just feel bad he’s not able to fulfill all those plans.”
She said her father, born in Fort Sumner and raised in Melrose, was a truck driver who traveled all over the United States. She said he had a contagious laugh and was very friendly.
“He was that guy that would say hi to everybody at the store – to the point where I would say, ‘Dad, you can’t say hi to everybody,’ ” she said.
Since his passing, Cruz said, those who work at the bank in Melrose tell her Frazier would not leave “until he had put a smile on all of the women’s faces.'”
New Mexico’s first reported COVID-19 death was that of a 78-year old-Artesia man who died on March 23, 2020.
The state hit the 1,000-death mark about seven months later – in late October – and the death rate due to the virus surged shortly thereafter amid a wave of new cases and hospitalizations.
New Mexico reached 2,000 deaths due to COVID-19 in mid-December and then surpassed 3,000 deaths just over one month later – on Jan. 20.
Shortly thereafter, the death rate finally slowed, even though more fatalities were reported almost daily, with the state eclipsing 4,000 deaths related to the virus in mid-April.
And the solemn march toward 5,000 deaths continued over the summer, with the death rate ticking back up again during the delta wave, which began in August.
During the early days of the pandemic, Scrase recalled talking to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about an outside model that showed New Mexico could reach 500 deaths related to COVID-19.
While some elected officials downplayed the seriousness of the virus, Scrase said he recognized its potential lethality in New Mexico, a state with high poverty rates and chronic staffing shortages among health care workers.
“I said, ‘That would be the best-case scenario,’ ” recalled Scrase, who said he has lost family members to the pandemic.
While the virus still lurks, he said, New Mexicans are mentally fatigued and have resumed their normal routines, adding that many state residents are “sitting at home thinking the pandemic is over.”
Overall, COVID-19 was the third-leading cause of death in New Mexico last year, behind heart disease and cancer and ahead of accidents, drug overdoses, diabetes and homicide.
New Mexico’s coronavirus victims include highly regarded basketball coaches, prominent business owners and tribal leaders.
The virus has killed residents of all 33 New Mexico counties and more men than women – males account for 56.4% of the state’s deaths. Five children under age 18 have also died due to COVID-19.
The state’s Four Corners region and southeastern New Mexico have the highest death rates, with roughly one out of every 140 people having died due to the virus in McKinley County, which encompasses part of the Navajo Nation and was a virus hot spot during the pandemic’s early days.
Many of those who have died had underlying health issues, with diabetes, heart disease and hypertension being the most common conditions, according to state DOH data.
Watching it all play out is Linda Stetter, a chaplain at San Juan County Regional Medical Center in Farmington.
“When a patient isn’t doing well, people start to grieve – they grieve the future that they had hoped to have with that person,” Stetter said.
She said those who die often leave kids at home and, in many cases, are the family breadwinners.
She said she helps relatives by listening to stories of loved ones – how funny they were or the career they chose – or sometimes she just sits with them.
But Stetter also said there’s been a shift in outlook since New Mexico’s pandemic-related death toll reached 1,000.
A year ago, she said, many people coming in with COVID looked at it as “a death sentence.”
Now there are more survivors, and patients can have relatives visit, instead of seeing only doctors in layers of protective gear.
“Mostly what I hear is ‘help make me well and please pray with me,'” Stetter said. “I’m not seeing levels of terror.”
The virus has not spared any ethnic groups when it comes to virus-related deaths, although some have been hit harder than others.
Native Americans make up 11% of the state’s population, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, but have accounted for slightly more than 25% of New Mexico’s total COVID-19 deaths.
Lynn Trujillo, who leads the state’s Department of Indian Affairs, said many of those who have died were tribal elders who were “irreplaceable” keepers of knowledge and stories.
“It’s really hard for me to even put into words,” Trujillo told the Journal. “I don’t even think I’ve come to terms with it myself.”
Trujillo, a member of Sandia Pueblo, said she dealt with isolation and loneliness herself, as she was unable to visit family members on the pueblo while it was locked down during the initial stages of the pandemic.
She also said COVID-19 has affected tribal culture by forcing the cancellation of traditional feast days and other celebrations.
But she also pointed out that New Mexico tribes and pueblos have some of the nation’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rates and said she’s hopeful health care access and other inequalities exposed by the pandemic will be addressed in the coming months and years.
“I think there will be a lot of healing to be done,” Trujillo said.
Months after her father’s death, Cheyenne Cruz said her 4-year-old son, Dawson, asks where his Opo is every day.
She said they ordered books to read to him about losing a loved one and are doing things to keep Frazier’s memory alive for Dawson. Soon the family will go pick the carrots Dawson and his grandfather planted last spring.
She said her son is starting to understand that he’s not going to see Opo again. He points to stars in the sky, Cruz said, and exclaims “that’s Opo up there.”
She said her dad, who spoiled his grandchild “like crazy,” had been very excited for Dawson’s fourth birthday.
“Before his birthday, he said, ‘I know that Opo isn’t going to be at my party, but I wish he would be,’ ” Cruz said. “I had to tell him, ‘He will be there; he’s in your heart and he’ll be there in spirit.’ I have to explain stuff to him like that.”