DOH Secretary on COVID-19: This is a Different Pandemic

CDC new map shows a decline in Santa Fe County COVID-19 levels

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, with several New Mexico counties experiencing high levels of community spread, “this is a completely and totally different pandemic that we were in two years ago,” Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said today during a news update from the health department.

That difference lies in the availability of vaccines and treatments, he said, noting that he anticipates no changes to the state’s health orders in the foreseeable future. While there has been an increase in cases, serious illness and deaths have not risen. Referring to case counts, Scrase referenced the slide below noting that the number of recorded cases from PCR tests “is starting to fall off. And that’s really good news. So we’re happy about that. And the modeling team met this week, and kind of confirmed that they’re seeing that in the future, the case counts coming down as well.”

Today, the health department reports 593 new cases, for a total of 575,862 cases thus far. There are 173 people hospitalized with COVID-19, 16 of whom are ventilated. The state also reported 29 additional deaths, bringing the statewide total number of lives lost to 8,035. Santa Fe County has had 323 fatalities.

According to the state health department’s most recent report on geographical trends, for the seven-day period of July 4-10, San Juan County had the highest daily case rate per 100,000 population: 63.4, followed by McKinley County at 60.9 and Lincoln County at 59.7; Santa Fe County’s case rate was 42.4, down from 49.4 last week and within the second highest category of case rates—red—in that report. The health department reports 5,889 cases in the last seven days, an approximate 7% decline from the prior week’s seven-day period.

Moreover, the percentage of people hospitalized with COVID-19 who require ventilation has remained below 10%, he said.

“What it means is the combination of the characteristics of the virus, the number of people vaccinated [and] people actually [taking] the treatment [has] really, really improved,” Scrase said. “I’ve been watching this really closely every day and it appears that the combination of the evolution of the virus and the preventive and reactive measures we’re taking to the virus when we all get sick is working and it’s a much, much less serious disease now than we’ve seen in the past.”

That being said, Scrase reiterated the importance of people monitoring the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s weekly update to its “community levels” map—which assesses risk based on a combination of case count and hospital metrics—to determine their own level of risk and take appropriate measures.

“I encourage all of you to familiarize yourself with this website,” he said. “We go by the CDC direction now; follow the CDC guidance.”

The CDC map updates on Thursdays. For the week of July 7-13, the map shows seven counties classified with “red” or “high” community levels, a decline from 11 last week. After two weeks of high levels, Santa Fe County has decreased to “yellow” or medium levels. Nine counties have “green” or low levels and the rest are medium. The CDC’s recommendations include indoor masking for people living in counties with high community levels. The remainder of its recommendations can be found here.

Scrase also addressed the rising prevalence of the BA.5 variant as the dominant variant in the US. In New Mexico, which tends to lag a few weeks behind national pandemic trends, BA.4 and BA.5 account for approximately 50% of cases, with BA.5 likely to be the most common variant in early August.

When asked if “the state” was “underplaying” the potential impact of the BA.5 variant, Scrase said that depends on one’s definition of “state.”

“I think everyone in the state of New Mexico should take steps to revisit their own strategy to think about the gatherings they go to,” he said, noting that even low case rates represent a “fraction of the total number of positive tests” because of home testing. Nonetheless, he said, New Mexico is on par with other states and countries in terms of the restrictions it has in place. “We feel like the tools we have right now to fight the pandemic are so good that overarching government requirements aren’t needed. So yes, everyone in New Mexico should be careful and that’s our best way to fight the B.5 wave.” Even with that wave, he said, he believes “the total case count is actually going down now and hopefully, data over the next couple of weeks will confirm that.”

As for treating BA.5 infections, while the variant appears to be resistant to monoclonal antibody treatments, “officials believe it will remain responsive to the oral treatment Paxlovid.” Scrase also noted the department is “excited” and “anxious to promote” recent authorization by the Food and Drug Administration for state-licensed pharmacists to prescribe Paxlovid under certain restrictions.

“We really think that treatment is our main way of preventing too many hospitalizations as this virus continues to mutate and continues to bob and weave and we continue to chase it,” Scrase said. “We think that treatment is a critical, critical factor to prevent hospitalizations given that people still are going to interact, going to spend time together. The virus is going to spread—that’s just a given and we accept that.”

Scrase said it’s not known if BA.5 is resistant to the current vaccine, “but we do believe that we’re seeing a lot more breakthrough cases now than we were in the beginning, which makes perfect sense where we have a two-year-old vaccine that was based on the very first strains of the virus and and now we have dozens of evolutions in the virus.”

Scrase said his main frustration, and that of other health providers, is the rate at which new vaccines targeting specific variants are being developed.

“I still hope we get to that annual coronavirus vaccine like we have had for influenza for decades that is updated every year and more specific,” he said. “So I’d like to go in to my primary care doctor in September when I see her and get a my new annual COVID vaccine that covers Omicron…and a little Delta and a little bit of whatever’s next.”

And there will be more variants.

“The virus actually wants to live with us,” Scrase said. “So it evolves over time to more easily infect people, but it reduces the number of people who were killed. And that’s what we normally see in any kind of viral spread or pandemic is that slight decrease in severity of illness, but an increase in infection.”

Scrase also provided a brief update on monkeypox. New Mexico reported its first case earlier this week and now has, he said, four. The state will be relying on the CDC to report out its cases, he said, due to the low number.

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