New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase and acting state epidemiologist Chad Smelser from the state Department of Health provided updates Tuesday on the state’s COVID-19 data modeling and criteria for reopening.
The presentation was made via a livestream from the Human Services Department’s Facebook page.
New Mexico has recently received positive notices, including a Sept. 15 Scientific American article which praised the state for making decisions about public health orders on the basis of data and for its widespread testing.
New Mexico is ranked among the top 10 states for widespread testing, with a comparatively low test positivity rate of 3.2 percent.
For statewide and local reporting, subscribe to the Las Cruces Sun-News today.
With 28 labs in the state currently processing tests, a total of 872,331 tests were completed as of Tuesday.
Recent uptick in cases
The DOH announced 110 new cases Tuesday, bringing the cumulative total of cases to 27,790. Of those, 15,586 (or 56 percent) have been designated as recovered.
Yet the path of recovery may be long. Scrase pointed to research suggesting many patients experience lasting lung damage or changes.
The disease is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus, and Scrase pointed out that research into surviving patients of the 2002-04 SARS outbreak found that respiratory problems and chronic fatigue made it difficult for some patients to return to work. A small number could not resume work for one to three years after their infection.
There were 69 patients hospitalized in New Mexico and 14 on ventilators, according to Tuesday’s update. Smelser noted during the briefing that the percentage of hospitalized patients on ventilators has consistently trended around 20 percent.
With the deaths of individuals in Bernalillo, Eddy and Santa Fe counties announced Tuesday, the state’s total deaths attributed to COVID-19 reached 854.
The rate of infections has crept up to 1.11, above the criterion of 1.05 or less used by state officials to determine New Mexico’s readiness to loosen public health restrictions. Meanwhile, New Mexico continues to meet other gating criteria, based on testing and positivity rates, supplies of personal protective equipment for medical workers, and patients admitted to hospitals and requiring intensive care.
The trend may correspond with travel and social gatherings over Labor Day weekend, Scrase suggested, but said an increase in cases is to be expected as more activities resume.
“As we reopen things we are going to see more cases, as we see more cases that will mean a slight uptick in the spread rate,” Scrase said.
Travel, Smelser pointed out, was consistently a factor in recent activities listed by individuals testing positive during contact tracing.
“People moving around and people interacting person-to-person leads to more transmission,” Smelser said.
Scrase said 251 patients had been discharged from a long-term care facility for COVID-19 patients at the Canyon Transitional Rehabilitation Center in Albuquerque, while 32 died there. The facility is a collaboration between the state and Genesis HealthCare.
Scrase noted that on Sept. 17, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued guidance for nursing homes recommending that county-wide test positivity rates be used to guide policies on allowing indoor visitation, similar to the approach New Mexico adopted in August.
He and Smelser provided in-depth analysis of data, which is included in epidemiological reports on the state Department of Health website at cv.NMhealth.org/epidemiology-reports.
Regarding schools and children
Scrase warned that as some schools in New Mexico begin to resume in-person instruction, keeping them open requires children to stay home if they exhibit flu-like symptoms or symptoms consistent with COVID-19; if they test positive for the disease, even without symptoms; have close contact with anyone positive for the disease or if they live with someone who has symptoms and is being tested.
Smelser pointed out that current data indicated 30 to 40 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state were asymptomatic, meaning people carried the virus without presenting symptoms of the disease.
“A number of states just opened their schools wide open,” Scrase said, resulting in outbreaks in those states, including New Mexico’s neighbor, Texas.
In New Mexico, on the other hand, some school districts have voted to continue with remote learning through the fall semester, even in counties with low test positivity rates.
Scrase noted that in New Mexico there is a high rate of households with multiple generations living together, meaning many school-age children live with adults at increased risk due to age and/or underlying conditions.
In particular, he noted data showing Black and Hispanic children in New Mexico are far more likely to live in such households than white residents.
Data trends also suggested that in younger adults, a single underlying condition combined with COVID-19 presented risks comparable to middle-aged adults with no underlying conditions, illustrating that COVID-19 becomes more dangerous in combination with other conditions.
Obesity doubled the likelihood that a COVID-19 patient would be hospitalized, while also increasing fatality rates for those patients by 50 percent, according to research presented at the news conference.
The pandemic initially hit Native American populations in the state the hardest, with the Navajo Nation alone presenting the highest per-capita rates of infection in May.
The reversal of new infections in the Navajo Nation, which includes the northwestern corner of the state and portions of Arizona and Utah, was hailed Monday by physician Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a prominent member of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Fauci said the Navajo Nation’s adherence to COVID-19 safety practices had “proven that when you do these public health measures, you can turn around a serious surge of infection.”
Meanwhile, Scrase said Tuesday that new cases are now climbing highest among Hispanic populations in the state.
‘Please don’t delay care’
Scrase and Smelser said data on flu transmissions from southern hemisphere countries may bode well for New Mexico, but they both urged New Mexicans to get flu vaccinations.
The data suggested that countries with strong adherence to COVID-19 preventative measures, such as mask-wearing, maintaining physical distance from others and frequent washing of hands, experienced fewer transmission of the flu as well.
Smelser emphasized that getting residents vaccinated was of “paramount importance” because even small increases of flu in the midst of COVID-19 activity would increase strain on hospitals and endanger more medical personnel.
“Please don’t delay care,” Scrase urged the public, noting with concern that childhood immunization rates have dropped off in recent months. Annual vaccination rates in April dipped 60 percent below the previous year.
As for a COVID-19 vaccine, the state is preparing a vaccine plan to submit to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No timeline for the availability of a tested vaccine is yet available; but Scrase said when it is ready, New Mexico will conduct an independent review of the vaccine’s approval process before distributing it.
Scrase clarified, however, that this did not mean New Mexico would conduct separate trials of a vaccine.