Before COVID-19, social distancing was a concept known by few. Weeks later, social distancing defines our daily lives. Although social distancing has effectively slowed down the spread of COVID-19, it has come at a huge cost. Families have been separated, businesses have closed, and hardworking individuals have been deprived of their ability to earn an income. Unfortunately, until a vaccine is developed, or a treatment is discovered, social distancing is the most effective tool we have to stop the spread of COVID-19. New Mexicans must not abandon social distancing in favor of economic gain. If COVID-19 is not stopped, the workforce that supports our economy will no longer be able to bear that burden. We must endure the harsh reality of social distancing in order to one day enjoy life as it was before COVID-19.

Despite unprecedented efforts to stop COVID-19, it has quickly spread throughout the country and our state. COVID-19 was first detected in the United States on January 21, 2020. As of April 16, 2020, there were 632,548 known cases and over 31,000 deaths. COVID-19 first appeared in New Mexico on March 11, 2020. As a result of decisive action taken by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the spread of COVID in New Mexico has been limited to 1,597 cases on April 16, 2020, with 44 deaths. Tragically, April 16, 2020 marked the highest number of deaths in one day with eight deaths related to COVID-19. It is difficult to imagine what those numbers would look like if strict physical distancing guidelines had not been put in place. Certainly, if social distancing restrictions are lifted before it is safe to do so, the number of cases and deaths will rise dramatically. With any such surge in cases, healthcare systems will quickly be overwhelmed and unable to effectively treat patients.

Weeks from now, a time will come when social distancing can be relaxed, and businesses can begin to systematically open with precautions taken to protect public health. Any decision to ease social distancing guidelines must be founded on sound principles that are driven by science and data. As suggested by the American Medical Association, there are four primary criteria that should be followed when relaxing public health orders requiring social distancing:

  1. demonstrated minimal risk of community transmission based on sustained evidence of a downward trend in new cases and fatalities;
  2. a robust, coordinated, and well-supplied testing network;
  3. a well-resourced public health system for surveillance and contact tracing; and
  4. fully resourced hospitals and health care workers to handle a potential influx of COVID-19 patients. Lifting social distancing requirements before those four criteria are met would put lives at risk and further drain the economy by prolonging this crisis.

As president of the New Mexico Medical Society, I extend my deepest gratitude to the healthcare workers of our state, first responders, and all of the individuals putting their lives at risk to meet the daily needs of our state. I would also like to thank Gov. Lujan Grisham, Secretary of Human Services David Scrase MD, Secretary of Health Kathyleen Kunkel, and their team for the outstanding work they have done to protect lives in New Mexico. They had the foresight to see the problems COVID-19 would bring, and because they took difficult and necessary actions early on, our state is not in the terribly tragic position some other states are. New Mexico is at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19 and we cannot, yet, let down our guard.

Nancy J Wright MD, Pediatrician, Las Vegas, NM