DOH: Current COVID-19 Surge “Very Different” From Past

Yes, cases are rising, but severe illness is not

New Mexico is experiencing a current wave of COVID-19 infections, State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross confirmed today. As the chart below indicates, “the state has been seeing a rising number of cases for several weeks now,” along with an increased number of hospitalizations.

Today, DOH reported 1,100 new cases, bringing the total number of cases on the 820th day of the pandemic to 542,746. Currently, 140 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, and nine are ventilated. The state also reported 13 more deaths, bringing the total number of deaths to 7,862. Santa Fe County has had 304 deaths so far.

The state no longer publishes daily COVID-19 updates by county, but according to the most recent DOH report on geographical trends for COVID-19, as of June 6, the state had recorded 6,104 new cases in the preceding seven days—a nearly 55% increase from the prior seven-day period. Grant and Santa Fe counties had the two highest daily case rates per 100,000 population in the most recent time period: 82.5 and 64.8, respectively.

Moreover, the state has increasing numbers of counties moving from “green” (low) to “yellow” (medium) under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “community levels” framework, which uses both case rates and hospitalization data to gauge risk. The chart updates on Thursdays but, as of last week report, nine counties—Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, Los Alamos, Mora, Harding, Sandoval, Bernalillo, Cibola and Grant—were yellow, a smaller percentage of the state’s counties, but accounting for several of its largest population centers, Ross noted.

But what New Mexico is not seeing is a rise of patients requiring intubation nor an increase in “medically significant” cases, she said. “Clearly what we’re seeing with this wave, it’s very different than what we’ve seen in the past,” Ross said, enumerating the potential reasons for the shift to include the high percentage of people with immunity from either vaccinations or prior infection along with changing properties of the current Omicron sub-variant responsible for most cases in the state (BA.2.12.1).

“So what this effectively means is there are clearly a lot of COVID-19 infections in our communities right now,” she said. “But despite this rise in cases and community transmission levels, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths remain comparatively low. It just can’t go without saying that any COVID-19-related death is obviously one too many, and we really hope very soon to see the day when we are reporting our zero COVID-19 related deaths. But in summary: Right now, we are clearly in a in a very different pandemic, if you will, then we have seen previously.”

Both Ross and Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase provided today’s update, the first since March 11, with a heavy emphasis on the ways in which the pandemic has changed and the treatments available for people who contract COVID-19.

“I think most of us currently know someone who’s infected with COVID-19,” Ross said. “Most people are aware that there are a large amount of infections happening in the community, and you need to understand the recommended prevention steps that you can take.”

Those steps include, of course, vaccines, she said, describing them as “the best option to lower your risk of severe illness, hospitalization and death if you happen to get infected.” Ross also noted the importance of staying up to date with booster shots, and cited CDC data from March showing adults ages 18 years and older who were unvaccinated were approximately five times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID-19 than those who were up to date. In the same month, people ages 12 years and older and unvaccinated were 17 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than those who were up to date.

Treatments also have become a key difference in the current stage of the pandemic, Ross and Scrase noted. Access to them, Scrase said, requires only a positive test, one symptom of COVID-19 and one risk factor. In an Op-Ed published by SFR this week, Scrase described the oral treatments as “game changers,” as they can reduce the chance of severe outcomes from COVID-19, including hospitalization and death, by nearly 90%.

“We’ve made incredible progress on the percent of people we’ve treated,” Scrase said, “particularly [over] the past four weeks.” The challenge, he said, is expanding the number of people accessing treatment after a positive PCR test to include those who are using home tests. “We’re trying to get labels to put on the home tests just to remind [people] to call your provider for free for treatment if your test is positive.”

In a written response to a question from SFR regarding the uptake of oral treatments, DOH said between June 1 and June 7, the state had “ a COVID-19 outpatient treatment rate of 36.8%, during which time 2,246 treatment courses were provided, including Paxlovid (oral), Molnupiravir (oral) and Bebtelovimab (IV). Oral treatments accounted for 88.25% of the outpatient treatments provided.

Of course, preventative measures—masks, social distancing etc—also still work, but do not expect any return to mandates for either. While mask mandates remain in congregate health care settings, Scrase said, due to their vulnerable populations, discussions about reimposing them elsewhere “is just not something that’s on the table.” And that’s because of the myriad other ways people can fight COVID-19 now, he said, including testing, treatments, voluntary masking and the ability to track the level of COVID-19 in one’s community.

“I think the first three months in the pandemic, I dreamed one day we would have this many tools in our toolkit,” Scrase said, citing the available guidance regarding masking; a forthcoming vaccine for children under the age of 5; and other information available for mitigating the pandemic’s impact.

All that being said, both Ross and Scrase noted that even though treatments are available and infections may be less severe, “avoiding infection” should be the goal, particularly given the “phenomenon of long-COVID or post-COVID conditions, which does not appear to be insignificant,” Ross said. In other words, Scrase said: “The best way to avoid long COVID is not getting COVID in the first place.”

As for the future, it will include Ross’ departure in July from her post as the state epidemiologist. In announcing Ross’ departure, Scrase described her as “an incredible leader. She’s been a great thought partner to me. There’s…nothing I think about about the pandemic that hasn’t been informed by my discussions with her.”

As for the past three months without a news briefing, Scrase thanked attendees today for “your forbearance while we got this very, very much needed break,” while case counts were low. With cases rising, he said, “we’re working on some sort of schedule to ensure you get your questions answered.”

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