Wear a mask. Get vaccinated. Stay home if you’re sick.
New Mexico health officials today offered a familiar litany of advice as a concomitant familiar pattern of cold weather ushering in higher COVID-19 cases has begun to emerge across the state.
This afternoon, the state health department reported 818 new cases, bringing the total number to 638,873. However, with the prevalence of home-testing, the reported number of cases only represents a portion of the actual number of cases in the state. In other words: “We are clearly on an upward trend with COVID cases in the state,” Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during a news conference today. “And we are seeing more and more patients with COVID lately.”
Specifically, he said, hospitalizations have doubled in the last month, although the percentage of people on ventilators as the result of COVID-19 illness is about 3%, which is significantly lower than in the past. As of today, 170 people are hospitalized and six are on ventilators. The state also reported three additional deaths, bringing the total number of COVID-19 fatalities to 8,692.
“Basically, we still continue to have people die pretty much every day from COVID and that death count continues to mount,” Scrase said. “Our hearts go out to every family who’s lost someone to COVID [and] by now it’s almost every New Mexican who knows someone or has someone in their family whose life has been lost.”
As of press time, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s most recent “community levels” map, which uses a combination of hospital and case rate metrics to calculate COVID-19 risk for the prior seven-day period, now categorizes eight New Mexico counties as “orange” for COVID-19—with high risk—including Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Taos and Rio Arriba counties, along with Bernalillo, Sandoval, McKinley and San Juan. Seven New Mexico counties are “yellow” and the rest of New Mexico’s counties continue to have “green,” aka low, levels. That map should update by the end of the day.
The state’s current public health order encourages people to monitor the CDC community levels and corresponding precautions. For instance, the CDC advises people in “orange” counties with high community levels to wear masks.
Scrase and Deputy DOH Director Dr. Laura Parajón also reiterated calls for vaccines and boosters. Parajón said she recently contracted COVID-19 and believes “because I had the booster, I got much less sick than I would have. I have asthma and so anytime I get a respiratory illness, it really hits me hard. People think, ‘Oh, if I get the booster I’m not gonna get COVID. Unfortunately, Omicron is really, really infectious. It’s super contagious. I think it’s really important for us to recognize that the booster is doing its job. I’m here today and feeling pretty good.”
Regarding boosters, the state has administered more than 230,000 doses of the bivalent booster targeting the Omicron variant and is one of the top states for its vaccine rates.
Omicron, and its subvariants, continues to be the dominant form of COVID-19. Scrase said in addition to monitoring variants, health officials also are keeping a close eye on long-COVID—chronic, persistent or re-emerging COVID-19 symptoms—and the emerging data about it, such as related in the slide below.
“I’m in contact with our delivery systems and our medical advisory team about making sure that we’re responding in the long run,” Scrase said, “to have resources available for people who want to be evaluated. This is something that really will be a significant public health issue. It’s a workplace issue. It’s a health issue for the people who have it, certainly. And so we will be watching this.”
While rising COVID-19 cases heading into the winter holidays echoes the dynamic of the past few years, this year has a twist, as cases of both flu and RSV, which impacts children, also are increasing, creating a so-called “triple threat” environment for illness.
UNM Children’s Hospital Associate Chief Medical Officer Dr. Anna Duran, who spoke earlier this week in a news conference with health officials from Presbyterian Medical and Lovelace regarding a concerning rise at their facilities of pediatric patients, reiterated today that hospitals are seeing not just COVID-19, flu and RSV, but parainfluenza, and enterovirus, as well, and at her facility, capacity has been fluctuating between 125 to 130%. Respiratory surges come every year, she noted, so the hospital has a surge plan in place, but this year it came “very quickly and the numbers were much higher than we’ve seen in years past.”
Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center Marketing, Communications & Public Relations Director Arturo Delgado told SFR earlier this week while Christus has not had the surge reported elsewhere, “the rise in cases is concerning and we will continue to monitor the situation very closely.”
Duran encouraged people to vaccinate their children for flu and COVID-19, and noted that people with younger children, who are under 6 months of age, “those are the children we really want to protect. So if you have a child who is under 6 months of age, we are encouraging adults, family members to vaccinate for the children who cannot be vaccinated.”
This week, the state health department announced its Health Vaccine Advisory Committee had recommended no significant changes or additions be made to New Mexico’s 2023/2024 school immunization requirements, following its annual meeting on the topic earlier this month. The committee’s recommendations are based on those from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization, along with local input, and they include: continuation of the 10 current vaccines required for school entry for the 2023/2024 school immunization requirements, such as measles, polio and tetanus. The committee also recommends but does not require age-appropriate flu and COVID-19 vaccines, and “strongly recommends” human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine at age 11 to 12.
“We’re never going to stop talking about the importance of getting vaccinated,” Scrase said. “It really has been and will continue to be the way that we preserve our most scarce resource and state during this pandemic.”
As for advice regarding the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday:
“Don’t go to Thanksgiving dinner if you’re sick,” Scrase said. “Stay in your bedroom and have them bring you a plate and maybe watch football in your room…don’t mingle with the rest of your family.”