Amid omicron, NM urges exposure notifications - Albuquerque Journal

Amid omicron, NM urges exposure notifications

In this file photo from August, Kate Tomkins, a second grade teacher at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, reads a book to her students and asks them questions. Health officials are stressing the importance of wearing a good mask as omicron arrives in the state. (Eddie Moore/ Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – As the omicron variant begins to dominate New Mexico’s coronavirus cases, acting Health Secretary David Scrase is encouraging residents to add an alert system to their smartphones and seek out testing if they’ve been exposed.

Health officials also suggested upgrading to a KN95 or an N95 mask or layering two masks for extra protection in crowded or high-risk settings.

Scrase, a physician who leads the state agencies for health and human services, delivered the recommendations Wednesday in a public briefing.

New Mexicans can visit to learn about the state’s COVID-19 exposure system or go into settings in their iPhone, for example, and click on “exposure notifications.”

“I’m hoping it really becomes one of the main ways we learn to live with COVID,” Scrase said.

The highly contagious omicron variant is expected to make up 100% of the COVID-19 cases in the state within a week or so, he said. It’s already half to 60% of the infections, according to state estimates.

New Mexico reported 2,514 new cases Wednesday – a sharp increase over the recent average – though hospitalizations remained almost flat.

Omicron has fueled record-breaking case counts across the globe, but Scrase said there’s some evidence the variant isn’t as likely to result in hospitalization or death.

An optimistic view, he said, would be for New Mexico’s omicron wave to last four to six week. But hospitals remain under tremendous pressure, Scrase said, amid staffing shortages and a heavy patient load – both from COVID-19 and other conditions.

“Omicron is here, and it’s serious,” he said.

The variant’s presence, Scrase said, make it all the more important for New Mexicans to be on guard for symptoms of or exposure to the disease.

About 37% to 40% of New Mexicans are participating in the New Mexico Notify program, he said, which will notify the user if they’ve been exposed to COVID-19. It uses the phone’s Bluetooth technology to determine close contacts with the phone of someone else who’s tested positive.

“I think it’s a very elegant and simple solution that basically reminds us when to get tested,” Scrase said.

It also allows users to report to the state when they test positive on an at-home test.

If you test positive on a home test, state health officials said, you don’t need to take a PCR test at a state site.

Masking, testing

Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajon encouraged New Mexicans to consider upgrading their masks in crowded or high-risk settings, especially given the arrival of omicron.

Layering two masks is one option, she said, or wearing an N95 or KN95 mask.

“Choose something that really works for you,” she said.

Parajon and Scrase also encouraged New Mexicans to be patient with the availability of tests amid a national shortage.

They said someone who tests positive on an at-home rapid test doesn’t need to have the result confirmed by getting a PCR test.

But if you test negative, don’t necessarily assume you’re in the clear.

They suggested taking rapid tests two days apart, especially if you have symptoms.

“With consecutive tests,” Scrase said, “you’re more likely to find it.”

Omicron may be particularly hard to detect. Parajon said people could try swabbing their throat – not just their nose – to get a good sample.

Omicron outlook

Scrase said hospitals are still struggling, even with COVID-19 hospitalizations down substantially from a December peak that reached over 700 patients.

The state reported 497 hospitalizations for COVID-19 on Wednesday, just four more than the day before.

But Scrase said an influx of patients seeking treatment for other conditions and chronic understaffing are putting health care workers under tremendous strain.

“I haven’t talked to any of our hospitals that aren’t experiencing severe staffing challenges,” Scrase said.

Some monoclonal antibody treatments aren’t as effective against omicron, he added, so hospitals may have fewer options, until more supplies arrive.

But he also suggested some reason for optimism.

The omicron wave in New York appears to have lasted about five weeks, Scrase said, not as long as feared. Hospitalizations and deaths didn’t climb as quickly as cases overall.

“One of the things we’re hoping we’ll see is a much lower death rate from omicron,” he said.

A good scenario, Scrase said, would be that future COVID-19 variants are even milder than omicron, resulting in a disease more similar to the flu and less disruptive. But there’s also the possibility of a variant that evades the current vaccines.

New Mexico, regardless, is still seeing a high COVID-19 death rate.

The Department of Health reported 36 more fatalities Wednesday, 24 of which happened in the last 30 days. The remainder occurred earlier, but the death certificates were processed only recently.

The statewide death toll is now 5,933 residents.

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