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Health secretary says this is a different pandemic but also urges caution

Sandoval71422 2.jpg
CDC/ Jered Ebenreck
Contrast of CDC Community Levels Map, left, (the new metric that triangulates transmission with hospitalization data). & Community Transmission Map, right, (the CDC metric of risk, determined by transmission and test positivity rates, used by NMDOH and CDC to advise localities before February 25, 2022). Current CDC/NMDOH guidance is determined by the metric on the left. Both metrics are still available via the CDC COVID-19 Data Tracker--these are for Sandoval County from July 13, 2022. Dr. Scrase says NMDOH health workers look at both to assess their own risk.

Acting New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said Thursday during a public briefing that the state is in a very different pandemic than two years ago. However he warned of rising case numbers later this summer.

As of Thursday, the state has recorded 8,035 deaths since the start of the pandemic, over 2,000 since January. By contrast, DOH shows almost 200 pneumonia and flu deaths combined from October, 2021 to May 15, 2022. There are two times as many hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to last July 15.

This was the first NMDOH update on COVID in over a month and Scrase acknowledged the losses when asked about them by KUNM.

"Every one of those New Mexicans  has a family, has co-workers, has friends. You know, there's an empty seat at the dinner table," he said.

He added that the mortality rate is much lower now, crediting vaccinations and treatment.

New Mexico has almost 10 times the daily case average compared to this time a year ago. Seven counties are in the high community level category, including Bernalillo and Sandoval. The CDC states people living in such areas should wear N95 masks, but state officials are not considering a mask mandate or any changes in statewide strategy.

"We have vaccines, we've got treatments, we've got better masks. And so we're much better equipped to really fight this virus now than we've ever been before," said Scrase.  

Under CDC guidance used before February 25, 2022, called community transmission, a measure of pure case rate and test positivity, all but two New Mexican counties are at the highest transmission rates, so the whole of the state is red by the old guidance. Scrase said health workers with NMDOH consult both metrics to determine their own risk.

He also emphasized the availability of vaccines for all over the age of 6 months, but a slide shared in the briefing shows that vaccination for those under 11 lags as children prepare for a return to school: for 5-11 year olds, only 32.5% have completed a primary series while just 2.3% of those 6 months to 4 years have had their first dose. Vaccines for the youngest ages became available at the end of June, but the rollout has been criticized.

One out of three New Mexicans are at high risk for severe illness from COVID-19, according to DOH, which also estimates for every confirmed positive test, there are up to eight more people with active infections. Some national estimates are as high as 30 additional people. Those at high risk and their community should take additional precautions, including masking and social distancing. One out of five of those with COVID-19 may develop Long COVID symptoms, making them “at risk” for severe illness from future infections.

Scrase encouraged people to stay up to date on vaccinations.

"We're relying on New Mexicans to use their own good judgment to protect themselves and their families and not any specific direction at this point in time from the Department of Health. " 

DOH guidance states those at high risk and their community should take additional precautions, including masking and social distancing. One out of five of those with COVID-19 may develop Long COVID symptoms, making them “at risk” for severe illness from future infections.

New Mexicans face fresh challenges calculating COVID-19 risk due to lagging attention to surveillance and glitches the state dashboard. For example, case counts reported after a holiday or weekend often include a total that would appear to be for that single day to the casual user, when they represent a cumulative 3- to 4-day count.

Scrase indicated that the metric should not be case counts but the 7-day daily average and the number of hospitalized and fatal cases. "And while the case counts might be just as high as they were at some of our peak periods, our hospitalization rates are incredibly low," he said.

DOH is understaffed. Scrase is acting DOH secretary as well as secretary of the Health and Human Services Department. Of 338 total positions in the Epidemiology Division, 83 are currently vacant, including the state epidemiologist. Dr. Christine Ross left July 10.

Another link to the public, the health equity communications manager, left in June. No replacements have been named, but according to NMDOH spokesman David Morgan, DOH is conducting a national search for Ross' position and Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajon is serving as director of the Epidemiology and Response Bureau in the interim. DOH is also hiring for the health equity communications manager.

Here is an updated list of resources for those impacted by COVID-19.

Jered Ebenreck has been involved in community radio for 30 years--from college radio in Maryland to KGNU, Boulder to WOMR, Provincetown to KUNM in 2004. Having served in a volunteer capacity for 17 years, Jered joined the KUNM Newsroom to offer Public Health reporting and analysis 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. Jered can be contacted via jeredebenreck@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeredEbenreck
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