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State health officials discuss learning to live with COVID

Felipe Esquivel Reed
Creative Commons

New Mexico health officials Wednesday offered an update on COVID-19 as the omicron variant drives up case numbers across the state. All Things Considered host Nash Jones spoke with KUNM’s Jered Ebenreck who attended the virtual briefing.

NASH JONES: Officials today talked about learning to live with COVID. And they also reported 2,500 new cases today and 36 deaths. We’re nearing 6,000 deaths total.

JERED EBENRECK: This news today is really striking simply because we're hitting almost 6,000 deaths, just two months after we hit the 5,000 mark. In addition, we're at a 20.6% positivity rate. That means a lot of cases are going undetected, it also means one in five of those tested are positive. They then say that positivity rates mean imminent high case loads as they come into the state hospital system. So we're really looking at a difficult situation for hospitals overall, for the state overall with these positivity rates and with these infection rates.

JONES: The omicron variant seems to be driving the wave of infections. What did they say about transmission severity in vaccines with regards to the omicron?

EBENRECK: Well, New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said that the omicron variant will account for 100% of the cases a couple of weeks from now. They're hoping that the evidence that it is less severe so far is true. In terms of how severe the illnesses are, all of that has to be qualified by the fact that those being infected are often vaccinated, are also often recovered. So we don't have a comparison of the severity of the cases against a completely uninfected, unvaccinated population. Secretary Scrase also indicated that while there are fewer hospitalizations, with omicron nonetheless, with high transmission rates, we may have a lot of hospitalizations with this current wave simply because of how fast it's transmitting. This is health secretary David Scrase.

And they are still struggling, they're struggling getting staff. They're struggling covering shifts, they're struggling in getting the work done, still have long emergency room waits.

JONES: There was a guidance change from the CDC that shortens the isolation period for those who tested positive from 10 days to five. The changes are kind of confusing people what evidence is NMDOH using to review those CDC guidelines?

EBENRECK: New Mexico is adopting the CDC recommendations to change the isolation period for those that test positive but are asymptomatic. There has been controversy among a lot of public health officials about how these announcements were released last week from CDC, how the recommendations are to be implemented, and at the news conference they did admit -- both Dr. Laura Parajón [deputy health secretary] and Dr. Scrase -- that it took some time for them to sort out how to explain these recommendations. The evidence is based on basically three studies from the CDC link, and a desire to make sure that people can go back to work and maintain the critical infrastructure around health care.

JONES: All right, and there was also some sobering news about monoclonal antibodies, which have been shown to be effective treatments in treating COVID-19. But now at least two of these treatments are not effective against omicron. What does that mean for us here in New Mexico?

EBENRECK: It means that there's limited supply of the treatments that are available in the state, especially the treatments that work against omicron. They expect this to be a two- to three-week lag. So it means that right now hospitals are meeting, with a proposal on Friday to come out with a recommendation about how to prorate these treatments in different communities. So we're in a tight spot.

JONES: And then finally there are complaints about testing access, cost and supply. How is the Department of Health addressing this?

EBENRECK: There is not enough supply for the demand. So while there are initiatives to get free tests out, for instance, 35,000 to particular communities in need, the Biden administration is attempting to surge that testing capacity, this unfortunately means they said that we are lacking the testing capacity between now and the next couple of weeks to catch up with the infection rates of the omicron variant. The hope is that people get tested, but people are still noting it's difficult to get that done and it looks like the supply chain will not meet that gap for the next few weeks.

JONES: KUNM’s Jared Ebenreck, thank you so much for joining us with the update.

EBENRECK: Thank you, Nash, for the time today.

Jered Ebenreck has volunteered in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Jered did Public Health reporting and analysis for KUNM from 2021-2022, while pursuing a graduate program in Public Health at UNM, with an emphasis on Social Ecology. Jered, with the help of his partner, is a caregiver for his mother with Alzheimer's.
Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.