Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Top New Mexico health officials said Wednesday they’re still investigating lab specimens to determine how rapidly the omicron variant of COVID-19 may be spreading statewide.
And they’re moving forward on a plan to distribute roughly 20,000 at-home tests for the virus – and possibly more – in COVID-19 hot spots and low-income areas as the contagious new variant surges nationwide.
Christine Ross, the state’s epidemiologist with the Department of Health, said Wednesday there are still many uncertainties about the omicron variant, including how lethal it might be and how effective antibody treatments might be in reducing its symptoms.
“The best-case scenario is this variant causes a less severe illness,” Ross said during a remote briefing with reporters.
She also encouraged New Mexicans to take precautions during holiday gatherings and get tested before meeting up with family members and friends, but did not urge people to stay home as top state officials did during the early stages of the pandemic.
“It appears we’re not going to see this virus contained or eradicated, so we’ve got to learn to live with it,” Ross said.
After the COVID-19 spread waned this summer, New Mexico saw another wave of new cases and hospitalizations this fall caused by the delta variant of the virus.
That surge has proven persistent despite New Mexico having one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 vaccine administration rates, though the number of new cases and hospitalizations has declined over the last two weeks.
The state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate has also dropped from 13.6% on Dec. 7 to 9.4% as of this week.
But the improving outlook could be clouded by the omicron variant, which was first confirmed in New Mexico on Dec. 12.
Ross said investigators at a state laboratory were scrutinizing test samples – using a technique called sequencing – to determine how many additional cases of the variant might be confirmed.
She also said modeling has suggested omicron could soon eclipse delta as the dominant variant of COVID-19, as has already happened in other parts of the nation.
The recent spread of COVID-19 variants has led to an increase of fully vaccinated New Mexicans testing positive for COVID-19. However, unvaccinated individuals still make up the majority of those who contract the virus and of those who are hospitalized because of it.
During a four-week period that ended Monday, unvaccinated people made up 70.6% of new cases recorded statewide and 82% of those hospitalized, according to DOH data.
Also, of the 222 deaths attributed to COVID-19 during that time period, 194 were unvaccinated – or 87.4% – and 28 were fully vaccinated.
Of the total 9,621 reported “breakthrough” cases of fully vaccinated individuals testing positive during the four-week time period, only about 3.2% were hospitalized, according to DOH data.
In contrast, slightly more than 6.1% of the roughly 23,000 unvaccinated residents who tested positive for COVID-19 were hospitalized.
Top state health officials said Wednesday that expanded COVID-19 testing could help reduce potential exposures, especially if people get tested before attending large gatherings.
“It’s really important to check on that day how infectious you are,” Ross said.
Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajon also cited President Joe Biden’s plan to buy roughly 500,000 at-home test kits and mail them to people who want them, starting next month.
But she and Ross also acknowledged the possibility of COVID-19 case undercounts, in part due to at-home testing.
State health officials did report 914 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, along with 39 additional deaths related to COVID-19.
There were 560 people hospitalized due to the virus around New Mexico – down from 613 individuals hospitalized a week earlier.
Preliminary studies have suggested initial vaccine doses might provide only partial protection against the omicron variant of COVID-19, but that a booster dose can improve immunity.
As of Wednesday, 32.3% of New Mexicans ages 18 and older had gotten a booster dose of the vaccine, per Department of Health data.
In all, slightly more than 88% of adults statewide have received at least one vaccine dose, while 75.5% had completed their initial vaccine series.