Poor mask etiquette is in (and on) our faces across the state as New Mexicans hoping to be tested for COVID-19 are reporting appointment delays and difficulty finding at-home test kits. Yet, the need both for more vigilant mask-wearing and rapid test results is urgent as sickness and death surround us; the state reported a record 4,246 new COVID-19 cases Friday, 9,284 cases and 37 deaths over the weekend, and a seven-day positivity rate of 25.8% — the percentage of coronavirus tests reported to the state that show someone has COVID-19.
“My body my choice” does not work with a highly infectious disease. Ditching masks, tests and vaccines is petulant at best, deadly at worst.
So, a legislative proposal for NM to use some of the federal government’s pandemic funding to issue $60 million worth of at-home test kits and high-quality masks makes sense. The devil will be in whether the state can get tests and masks, what it pays for them (remember the shortages and gouging of 2020?), and how it determines who gets what. Medical, first-responder and other frontline workers, including grocery and restaurant employees, come to mind. Folks who want to rapid test every weekend before hitting the bar are less sympathetic populations, but nonetheless part of curbing the spread.
As the state ponders this, it’s also vital to consider whether at-home tests and masks will arrive in time, be distributed in a coherent manner as cases surge and omicron spreads, or end up on eBay and in garage sale piles.
State Sen. Jeff Steinborn, D-Las Cruces, has prefiled a bill for the 30-day legislative session to use federal funds to provide New Mexicans $50 million worth of free at-home test kits and $10 million of free KN95 or other high-quality masks. Steinborn would have the DOH distribute the test kits and masks, while also launching a statewide education campaign about the importance of proper mask usage.
Continuing to educate the public on vaccines is also in order. Recent DOH data shows 76% of state residents 18 and older have completed their initial vaccination series, but just 36.3% of adults have had a booster shot. Just 57.5% of New Mexicans age 12 to 17 have completed their vaccination series, and only 18.1% of New Mexicans age 5 to 11 have completed theirs. QuoteWizard says reasons vary, with 37% of New Mexicans saying they don’t trust the government, 35% that they don’t trust the vaccines, 34% worried about side effects, 27% waiting to see if the vaccines are safe, 12% not believing COVID is a threat, and 4.4% reporting side effects from their first jab.
Yet, the unvaccinated are hampering progress toward herd immunity and account for a disproportionate share of N.M. infections. Those not fully vaccinated comprised 70% of new cases, 84% of hospitalizations and 84% of deaths in the most recent four-week reporting period.
Meanwhile, nearly 53% of New Mexico hospitals reported critical staffing shortages in late December. Health and Human Services Secretary/acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said that, at a point last week, there were just nine ICU beds available in the state. Hiring temporary workers through agencies that charge up to $265 an hour for traveling nurses is an unsustainable stop-gap measure to a long-term problem.
Using $60 million of the state’s $728 million of unallocated federal pandemic relief funds to distribute test kits and masks is a good idea, if done well and in tandem with President Joe Biden’s plan to buy and mail to people roughly 500,000 at-home test kits, beginning this month.
Because New Mexico is not alone in facing a shortage of nurses, ICU beds and at-home testing kits, as well as in battling record-setting spikes in daily COVID cases. On Monday, we surpassed 6,000 COVID deaths. Our health care workers are fighting, literally, for all our lives. Our teachers and students are fighting for the future and some normalcy. Our grocery, restaurant and retail workers are fighting to keep us fed and supplied.
The very least the rest of us can do is wear a mask, get tested as needed, isolate and quarantine as warranted, and, save for those few with health reasons, get vaccinated. If it takes the government to help that along, godspeed.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.