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As New Mexico emphasizes at-home testing, PCR testing access is shrinking

Three New Mexico counties — San Juan, Union, and Guadalupe — have high community levels of COVID-19, five less than the previous week according to the latest CDC data that accounts for hospitalization and case rates. But data also shows high spread of the virus with nearly all of the state in bright red.

Facing its third pandemic winter, New Mexico hospitals are overflowing into outdoor tents, as UNM Health System CEO Dr. Douglas Ziedonis told the Legislative Finance Committee on December 14.

"Right now we're at 130%," Ziedonis said. "We're way over capacity."

Meanwhile, COVID-19 surveillance in New Mexico continues to shift, includingCurative closing its PCR testing program at the end of the month.

Marquel Musgrave is a member of the Pueblo of Nanbé Owingeh-Tewa (Nambé Pueblo) and the COVID Technical Assistance Specialist with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.She says ending the rapid PCR service in Española impacts six Tewa Pueblos in Northern New Mexico.

"Removing PCR testing, especially at this time when we have such high rates of COVID, RSV and flu and healthcare systems, including IHS [Indian Health Service], are becoming overwhelmed, will really increase that flow of people towards those healthcare systems that don't have the capacity to to bring them in," Musgrave said.

She said rural communities need the state and federal government to secure free and accessible PCR testing outside of urgent care and added it’s necessary for adequate surveillance.

"PCRs offer the best in early detection, especially for folks who have symptoms," Musgrave said.

Early detection helps stop spread. Rapid antigen home tests may take two to three tests to show positive results, each separated by days, potentially delaying access to needed treatment and allowing viral spread.

Tanya Lattin is the Corrales Fire Commander and Emergency Manager in charge of the Corrales distribution of free at-home tests. She echoed Musgrave’s concerns that home-tests don’t replace the need for PCR tests.

"I do recommend to people who are high risk, that are sick, try to still find a PCR test," Lattin said.

On December 1st, DOH ordered 1 million free at-home tests from the CDC for managers like Lattin to distribute. She hasn’t heard when or how many tests she will get. Her current stockpile expires on January 13.

Curative PCRsites were the default referral for Lattin. Now she has to make a new list of PCR test sites for people calling for help.

She encourages people to have a COVID readiness plan. Lattin said, "If you're at risk, you should have a plan with your primary care doctor. If I get COVID, who do I call? Do I qualify for Paxlovid?"

NMDOH spokesperson Jodi McGinnis-Porter told KUNM folks seeking treatment after receiving positive results would bring their home test with them to an appointment through the state’s Test to Treat Program.

Lattin also appeals for common sense over the winter holidays.

"There's so many illnesses going around right now, not just COVID.  If you're sick, don't, don't go to your holiday party," she said.

Musgrave also encourages people to utilize a layered prevention strategy like the People’s CDC Safer In-Person toolkit testing, masking, and looking out for each other.

"One thing isn't gonna stop transmission, but the more layered mitigations that we have, the less risks that we have," they said.

A layered prevention strategy from the People’s CDC Safer In-Person toolkit
People’s CDC
People’s CDC Safer In-Person toolkit
A layered prevention strategy from the People’s CDC Safer In-Person toolkit

The White House has restarted the free at-home test program through the US postal service after Biden ended the program in early September blaming Congress for not providing funds. Orders placed may not arrive before the holidays.

New Mexico residents can still receive mail order free at-home tests through the Rockefeller Foundation’s Project Act program.

Meanwhile, DOH will shift to biweekly trends reporting on December 20, 2022. That includes data on race and age for deaths, cases and vaccinations, as well as variants of concern.

Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajón said tracking trends versus daily numbers changes policy during a DOH briefing earlier in December.

"Following trends over time, we can actually focus our attention on doing good prevention strategies and policy development for COVID," Parajón said.

Except on holidays and weekends, DOH will still report daily numbers of COVID hospitalizations, deaths, and confirmed cases from tests administered by labs or medical facilities. At-home tests are not counted.

Slide from the NMDOH Briefing on 12/8/22 showing changes in reporting cadence for COVID information
Slide from the NMDOH Briefing on 12/8/22 showing changes in reporting cadence for COVID information

Nationwide, CDC COVID wastewater surveillance shows 46% of sites report a COVID increase in the two weeks before December 11, including one for both Sandoval, Bernalillo, and Los Alamos counties.

New Mexico’s own wastewater surveillance stalled after the DOH Acting Secretary David Scrase said he did not understand procurement procedures needed to contract with Eastern Research Group. While hopeful, DOH offered no start date to resume reports as of this report.

DOH lacks staff in information technology and epidemiology and faces decreases in federal funding for COVID responses. Requesting an 11% budget increase from the state, DOH told lawmakers it hovers around 30% staff vacancy–double the vacancy rate in 2015 according to emails to KUNM from spokesperson McGinnis-Porter.

Among state mortality rates New Mexico ranks the 6th highest, the number of deaths per 100,000 people. Nationally, an average of over 450 people diedaily. New Mexico has recorded 8761 lost lives to the disease.

Taylor is a reporter with our Poverty and Public Health project. She is a lover of books and a proud dog mom. She's been published in Albuquerque The Magazine several times and enjoys writing about politics and travel.
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.
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