Officials unsure why virus cases not decreasing - Albuquerque Journal

Officials unsure why virus cases not decreasing

In this September file photo, Cheryl Becker, center, a registered nurse, talks with Marcos Bojorquez, 18, of Santa Fe after he got a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Santa Fe Community College. New Mexico has one of the nation’s highest vaccine administration rates but the number of new virus cases has remained stubbornly high. (Eddie Moore/Journal)


Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Just days after New Mexico crossed the grim threshold of 5,000 lives lost to COVID-19, top state health officials said Wednesday they’re not sure why the number of new cases has plateaued and not decreased like in some other states.

Acting Health Secretary David Scrase cited the likelihood of waning immunity among individuals who got the COVID-19 vaccine more than six months ago as a possible factor that could explain the stubbornly high number of new positive tests.

“We wish we knew more,” Scrase said during a Wednesday online briefing with reporters. “It could be a lot of different things.”

New Mexico is one of six states with a mask mandate in place for indoor public settings and has one of the nation’s highest vaccine administration rates, with more than 72% of adult residents fully vaccinated and 81.9% of those 18 and older having received at least one dose, according to DOH data.

However, that has not translated to a drop in virus cases, hospitalizations and deaths, and Department of Health epidemiologist Christine Ross said the state continues to sit at an “uncomfortable plateau.”

The number of new confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased in recent days in New Mexico’s northwest and southwest regions, though cases are trending down in southeast New Mexico, health officials said Wednesday.

They also expressed optimism that booster shots and the possibility of children 5 to 11 years old becoming eligible for the vaccine – shots for those children could begin in the next two weeks – could lead to a decline in new cases.

After several months of declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, the virus surged in August due to the highly contagious delta variant.

The number of new cases decreased gradually in September, but has gone back up and the 5,598 new cases reported over the past week – or nearly 800 new cases per day – was the highest number since late August.

In addition, New Mexico’s virus test positivity rate of 9.9% over a recent weeklong period was among the highest in the nation, according to U.S. Health and Human Services Department data.

Both Ross and Scrase cautioned Wednesday it’s tricky to compare state-to-state trends due to testing and reporting differences.

“This is cyclical and every state has its ups and downs,” Scrase said.

Health officials also appeared to back away from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s suggestion this week the state could reduce, if not eliminate, its susceptibility to the virus if its vaccination rate reaches 85% of the population.

“That number is elusive – I don’t think we know what it is,” Ross said.

For his part, Scrase said the state’s vaccination strategy for COVID-19 could eventually resemble its strategy for flu shots, with a new shot given annually to target the latest variants of the virus.

Officials also said there’s still a clear link between high vaccination rates and lower virus spread, although more vaccinated New Mexicans have tested positive in recent weeks.

During a recent four-week period, unvaccinated individuals made up roughly 73% of new cases and 77% of those hospitalized statewide. Among deaths, 113 of the 123 during the time period – or about 92% – were unvaccinated residents, according to DOH data.

Meanwhile, there were 959 new positive COVID-19 cases reported Wednesday and 15 deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 5,027 since the pandemic hit New Mexico in March 2020.

There were also 389 individuals hospitalized statewide due to COVID-19 – up from 365 a week earlier.

New Mexico’s hospitals have been facing a double whammy of a health care worker shortage and a large number of sick patients, with many of those hospitalized for ailments other than COVID-19 having seen their conditions worsen after not getting treatment during the early stages of the pandemic, Scrase said.

He said New Mexico is seeking to use federal funds to recruit 290 additional health care workers, mostly nurses, to help staff hospitals in Farmington, Alamogordo and other cities.

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