Both Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center and Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center have seen slight increases in COVID-19 patients over the last week. Christus currently has seven patients with COVID-19; Presbyterian, meanwhile, has two and saw more COVID-19-positive patients in the emergency department last week, as well as a slight increase in hospitalizations overall this month.
“We are concerned whenever we see additional hospitalizations and serious illness due to COVID-19 in New Mexico,” Presbyterian Santa Fe Medical Center Hospital Chief Executive John Adams says via a statement provided to SFR. “We continue to remind our community that the best protection is to stay up to date on vaccinations. It also is important to test if you have symptoms and stay home from work or school if you are ill.”
Increased hospitalizations in New Mexico correspond to rising hospitalizations nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and jibe with the growing cases reported recently by the state Department of Health. Following the end of the public health emergency, the health department stopped its daily COVID-19 case reporting in May. DOH also transitioned its biweekly epidemiology reports on cases, hospitalizations, variants and vaccinations to the third Tuesday of each month. According to the most recent case report published Aug. 14, the state had 643 cases in the seven days prior. That’s close to 140% higher than the seven-day case count reported in the state’s July report.
With cases rising, new variant in the mix and winter in the offing, DOH Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajón tells SFR the department has stood up its COVID-19 situational awareness team again to “prepare ourselves for winter.” SFR spoke with Parajón about how the public can do the same. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.
SFR: Why do you think we are seeing higher numbers of COVID-19 cases right now in New Mexico?
Dr. Laura Parajón: It’s hard to know exactly, but I would say that it’s a mix of: It’s been really hot so people are going inside…waning immunity; no one is really wearing masks anymore; and they’re vacationing everywhere— it’s very different than during the pandemic. Then there’s a new variant that’s coming up and the reason why the new variants are more successful are because they can really spread a little bit more easily. So I think it’s a combination.
Has New Mexico seen cases of the new EG.5 variant yet?
I can find out for you from our genomic sequencing team. They’re the ones who actually track it so I can see if we are seeing that. [Parajón subsequently shared via a spokesman that New Mexico thus far has six sequenced cases of EG.5, but “low PCR testing makes it harder to extrapolate. So this is likely an underestimation of what is really out there.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Nowcast also reports on variant presence by region, but did not have current estimates for Region 6, which includes New Mexico, as of press time. Nationally, EG.5 accounts for 20.6% of new COVID-19 infections].
It’s currently National Immunization Awareness Month. I know that’s more focused on children’s immunizations, but what can you tell the public about COVID-19 vaccinations and boosters at this point? I think it’s become a little confusing.
We’re in the in-between place, where the current bivalent booster covers the Omicron variant and we are waiting for the new one that covers [new variants], and is a more up-to-date vaccine. And so that’s supposedly coming out at the end of September, middle of October. And you’re right that it’s confusing because the way that people talked about it [previously] was ‘I have my first booster’ or ‘my second booster.’ That just doesn’t matter anymore. It’s a clean slate and now it will be more like a flu vaccine where you get a vaccine every year. You don’t have to count booster vaccines; it’s just that every year you should probably get your booster vaccine for COVID.
So everyone should wait for the new boosters?
I think for the most part, people under 65 who aren’t as high risk for dying or getting really sick can wait until the new [booster] comes out. But, let’s say you’re older, you’re immune-compromised, you’re at risk for getting COVID and you never got your up-to-date booster. And you’re seeing cases rise. Then you should probably consider wearing a mask and talking to your doctor about whether you should get boosted now and then in two months get boosted again. These are decisions people should discuss with their doctor.
What’s the most important data point health officials are looking at right now?
From a health official point of view, hospitalizations and deaths. We are seeing an increase in hospitalizations. And while it’s not nearly as high as it was in years past, we are keeping an eye on it. That’s why we do want to get the message out to say, ‘hey, if you’re older or if you’re immune-compromised [and seeing] rising cases of hospitalizations, make sure you take extra precautions.’
Will DOH be upping its messaging around COVID-19 going into winter?
We definitely will be upping our messaging because, like I said, our seniors are most at risk. We have a great new vaccine for seniors for RSV and as we go into the winter season, we need to winterize as much as possible. Seniors can get vaccinated for RSV now, as well as COVID and flu. So, let’s protect our most vulnerable people by making sure we can vaccinate them. Let’s make sure all the kids in school are up-to-date. As soon as our [updated] COVID vaccine comes out, people should go and get an updated vaccine. That will really help our hospital system. I know people always talk about, ‘oh my gosh, I got vaccinated and I still got COVID, or I still got the flu after I got a flu shot,’ but it’s to prevent you from getting hospitalized, it’s to prevent people from dying.
More information on COVID-19 vaccinations and treatments can be accessed online at cv.nmhealth.org or by calling 1-855-600-3453.