Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Last weekend, Grant County, New Mexico, came in second highest among all U.S. counties with the most COVID-19 average daily cases per 100,000 people.
In first place: the Nome, Alaska, census area.
That the virus had gained that much traction in the southwestern New Mexico county of some 29,000 people has befuddled many of its residents.
The county has had some of the state’s lowest daily case counts in the past and 70% of its adult residents were fully vaccinated as of this week – just slightly less than the statewide rate of 72.8% fully vaccinated adults, according to state Department of Health data.
“The new ranking is surprising,” said Dr. James Skee, an internal medicine specialist who has been practicing in Silver City for 41 years.
“It’s very disappointing,” he added. “I’m a little bit flabbergasted.”
Grant County’s second-place county ranking from the New York Times COVID-19 tracking system showed case counts averaged over 7 days.
New Mexico DOH county data shows Grant County had the highest per capita new daily cases in the week ending Oct. 31, with De Baca County in second place. And Friday marked a continuation of some of the highest reported new daily COVID-19 case counts in New Mexico since last January.
State health officials reported 1,463 new cases Friday, bringing the statewide total to 282,742 since the pandemic began. Twelve additional COVID-19 deaths were reported.
Grant County saw an additional 64 new cases, with 12 new cases reported in De Baca County.
The COVID Act Now website described New Mexico as “very high risk” on Friday, with 48.6 daily new cases per 100,000 people overall.
What is fueling the surge is still a question.
As one of the first medical providers to offer COVID-19 testing at the beginning of the pandemic, Skee said Grant County “has done pretty well through all of this.”
He said there have been patients who tested positive for the virus after being fully vaccinated, but most often those cases are not serious.
“I have people clamoring to get their booster (shot),” Skee added.
Over the last seven days, 39,115 booster doses have been administered statewide, according to DOH data. New Mexico residents can find locations nearest them online at https://vaccinenm.org/public-calendar.html.
In addition, there have been 19,265 breakthrough cases statewide since the start of February – or about 18.6% of all new cases reported during that time period.
The recent outbreak of cases has affected Grant County schools, as Silver Consolidated Schools Superintendent William Hawkins said the district made the “tough choice” last Sunday to temporarily close Cliff Schools, which has about 220 students attending kindergarten through 12th grade, due to a spike in COVID-19 cases on campus.
“When you look at a campus that small, you lose certain staff members to either quarantine or testing positive,” Hawkins said. “You hit a certain number where it becomes very difficult to continue to stay functional.”
The weeklong shutdown “allows those individual staff members who are either positive or on quarantine to complete the cycle of 10 days and allows parents to stop for a moment and assess their students and their households to determine if over the course of this week any students or individuals become symptomatic,” he added. “If so, they can take necessary precautions to go get tested or keep their children at home so the virus doesn’t spread.”
Since the beginning of the school year this fall, 135 students out of 2,300 who attend Silver Schools in Grant County have been reported as having COVID-19, along with 28 staff members.
“God willing, the principal is ready for her campus to be opened back and I know that the community, likewise, is,” Hawkins said.
In De Baca County with some 1,700 residents, County Commission chairman Scot Stinnett told the Journal Friday that even one or two cases of the coronavirus has had the ability to paralyze certain government functions temporarily.
A member of the road crew tested positive, Stinnett said, and because of the required quarantine, “the entire road department didn’t work for 10 days.”
Moreover, a vaccinated county clerk came down with COVID-19 prior to the recent election, “and we shut down (early) voting for two days because we didn’t have anybody to work.”
With De Baca’s small population, even several new cases can influence the overall case rate per 100,000 people, he added.
Most infections so far have been transmitted within families, Stinnett said. But the county detention center in Fort Sumner did receive two prisoners arrested by New Mexico State Police in Santa Rosa, which doesn’t have a jail. The inmates turned out to be carrying the coronavirus.
“We have a lot of people that actually travel to work because of our isolation. And that tends to expose you.”
Stinnett said the county is abiding by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders, including ensuring students wear masks in school.
But elsewhere in the rural community there’s not much masking up, he concedes.
“Once we got out of masks, we weren’t going back,” he said.