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State health officials said the COVID-19 omicron surge in New Mexico will likely peak by the end of the month or in early February, though the virus’s growth already appears to have slowed.
The omicron variant is currently ripping through New Mexico at rates not previously seen in the pandemic. The state has been reporting between 4,000 and more than 5,500 cases per day for more than a week. On Wednesday, the state reported 5,735 new cases – a single-day record.
That’s about twice as many cases as the state was reporting during the virus’s peak in late 2020, before vaccines were widely available.
The good news, however, is that COVID-related deaths and hospitalizations haven’t been moving in step with cases.
“One promising sign from our hospitals is that they are seeing a definite drop in the number of people with COVID in the hospital who are on ventilators,” Dr. David Scrase, the acting health secretary, said in a virtual media briefing Wednesday. “It could be an early indication here in New Mexico that omicron might be a little less serious disease.”
Nonetheless, there were 28 new deaths reported Wednesday, pushing the statewide toll to 6,205 since the start of the pandemic. There were 626 people hospitalized with COVID throughout the state Wednesday, according to the Health Department.
Scrase said the omicron variant poses a new dilemma. Two common monoclonal antibody therapies that had been regularly used for outpatient COVID patients aren’t effective against omicron and aren’t being used currently. That leaves doctors working with one monoclonal antibody therapy and two antiviral oral medications that are effective against omicron.
This week, the state had 1,950 doses available for outpatient COVID patients – a supply that included 926 antiviral oral medications and 1,030 doses of a monoclonal antibody treatment. Three weeks ago, there were 4,687 effective doses for outpatient COVID patients.
Scrase said the state created a scoring system that was sent to providers to determine which patients qualify for the treatments. He said the system assigns points to patients based on their various chronic conditions. A score of three qualifies a patient for one type of treatment and a score of six or above qualifies them for the other two available treatments, he said.
“Anytime in medicine when there is a scarce resource, we always triage,” Scrase said. “We were surprised to learn that two of our monoclonal antibodies weren’t effective against omicron. But we can expect those kind of surprises.”
Scrase said health officials are expecting it to be about three or four weeks before the supply of COVID treatments increases.
Meanwhile, Scrase said that modeling is predicting the omicron variant’s surge in the state will peak sometime between Jan. 27 and Feb. 2.
“It’s sort of strange, we’ve sort of been seeing steady case counts for the last week. … Case growth has stopped accelerating,” Scrase said. “I think what we’re believing and hoping is that we see (the peak) as soon as Jan. 27, hopefully right around the end of the month. … I think we’re feeling like that’s reasonable way to look at it today.”
Effectiveness of booster
Health officials say New Mexico data shows the importance of a booster shot.
About 2.5% of people who get COVID after only receiving an initial vaccine series are hospitalized, compared to 0.16% of people who get COVID after getting a booster shot.
The hospitalization rate for the unvaccinated is 5.48% and the death rate is 1.26%, according to Health Department data. Since Feb. 1, 2021, unvaccinated individuals accounted for 89.1% of COVID-related deaths.
The death rate for those who only complete their primary series of the vaccine is 0.35%. The rate is 0.01% for those who have had a booster shot, according to the data.
“So obviously the booster works, no question about it,” Scrase said. “It doesn’t mean the primary series isn’t good, it’s just that its effectiveness runs out.”