With three viruses surging in New Mexico, COVID surveillance is stalled and contracting
Three New Mexico counties – McKinley, Valencia and San Juan – have high community levels of COVID-19. That’s according to the latest CDC data accounting for hospitalization and case rates. But in terms of just the spread of the virus, all but one of New Mexico’s counties are bright red on the CDC map, showing the highest levels of transmission. KUNM’s Jered Ebenreck has this report.
Just as cases of COVID continue to rise, the state’s surveillance tools for tracking the virus appear to be contracting or stalled.
Curative PCR test sites around the state and nationwide, like the one at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque, will close by the end of December.
An operator at the company’s main number said it’s because of declining demand. "Due to the lack of testing needs, Curative COVID testing is coming to a close effective December 26 through the 28th," said the operator.
Luis Peña is 45 and lives in northern New Mexico, with his wife and two children. He lost his aunt to COVID and has watched family and friends struggle with long COVID.
"We see these efforts to normalize COVID death in hopes of declaring the pandemic over. And once again, you know, the poorest among us are being asked to carry the burden of these decisions," he said.
Peña reached out to State Senator Leo Jaramillo who then contacted Acting Health Secretary David Scrase about the impending shutdown. In the emails, shared with KUNM, Scrase expressed confidence that two rapid home antigen tests, done two days apart, are as effective as a PCR test. Scrase suggested PCR tests are only needed if a hospital requests them.
Peña says this is the wrong time to remove a layer of testing in the state.
"Let's be honest, we're right in the middle of a triple pandemic, with flu, RSV, and COVID. And so this just seems like a really, really bad time to make a decision like this," Peña said.
Unlike PCR tests, home tests may not be reported to the state. Scrase has noted in public updates that home testing already skews case counts reported to the CDC.
Peña has started a petition to extend COVID-19 PCR testing for New Mexico asking state officials to maintain testing access through June of 2023.
"I think it's a lot easier to save the program before it gets shut down, than to try to reimplement it once it's been taken away," Peña said.
Another tool for monitoring COVID-19 is wastewater testing. Nationwide, CDC wastewater surveillance shows 58% of sites report a COVID increase over the last two weeks of November, including one for both Sandoval and Bernalillo counties.
But New Mexico’s own wastewater surveillance program halted at the end of September. The Department of Health planned to take over, after the Environment Department ended its program in August.
At the last state COVID update in November, Scrase said the state procurement process interrupted wastewater reporting.
"I wasn't familiar with the contract arrangements when I did promise that. But we're getting that contract going, and should have that up and running, I'm told, by the end of the year," said Scrase.
DOH expects that contract to be signed with Eastern Research Group this month after which they will resume reporting.
In much of the coverage of the rising rates of flu, RSV and COVID, some health officials have opined about a so-called ‘immunity gap’ or ‘debt.’ They have suggested COVID precautions taken in the last two years are responsible for the current surge in respiratory virus cases among children because they were not exposed to viruses previously.
But Scrase and Deputy Secretary Laura Parajón disputed that theory in the November briefing.
“There's no evidence to show any kind of ‘immunity gap’, because I looked it up," said Scrase.
Scrase and Parajón said they believe low rates of RSV and flu in the past two seasons were due to widespread masking to prevent COVID.
"Masks really did work when we were being super careful, when people were super careful about COVID, washing their hands, keeping a social distance," Parajón said.
So far, however, there are no plans to return to any mask mandates. And Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who just had her second COVID infection, plans to rescind telework policies for all state workers.
But the strain on hospitals did cause DOH to issue a different public health emergency order on December 1st requiring that all New Mexico hospitals participate in a cooperative model of managing resources, including transferring patients, with DOH as a hub to their spokes.
The Department of Health did not issue a report on COVID deaths between November 23rd and December 5th.
DOH officials will hold an update on flu, RSV, COVID-19 and Mpox on December 8 at 1 p.m. It will be streamed live on the agency's Facebook page. The news conference will also be streamed with a Spanish language interpreter on Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s YouTube page.
This story has been updated to reflect the announcement of a Department of Health briefing.