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New Mexico had one of the highest COVID death rates in the country

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Three years ago we saw a global shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. New Mexico took an aggressive approach to public safety with mask mandates, closure of or restrictions on businesses deemed non-essential and bans on public gatherings. Yet a new report shows the state had one of the highest death rates from COVID.

The report in Lancet shows that New Mexico had about 521 deaths per 100,000 people from Jan 1, 2020, to July 31, 2022, which is much higher than the national average of 372. It ranked third behind Arizona and Washington, D.C.

Emma Castro is a researcher at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation and co-lead author of the research. She said New Mexico relied on tools and pushing vaccinations, ultimately ranking 19th in the nation in fully vaccinated individuals. But she said these strategies target spread and they lower infection rates but not necessarily deaths.

"A state like New Mexico, where there’s a high rate of individuals without health insurance, there’s worse access to care. Even if there was a maybe a lower infection rate, the people who are getting infected are not necessarily getting the care they need" said Castro.

The New Mexico Department of Health has reported over 9,100 COVID-related deaths.

Castro also spoke with KUNM about the importance of strengthening public health policy.

EMMA CASTRO: The premise for the research comes from this really enormous amount of variation that we see across states, you know, the mortality rate in some states was about a third as much as other states, which, you know, put another way, it means that potentially two out of every three people who died in those states with the higher mortality rates needn’t have died. Another way to look at it, you know, on the national level is that if the states with the highest mortality rates from COVID had instead exhibited mortality rates similar to the top performing states, we may have averted 500,000 deaths from COVID.

KUNM: The study does point to socio economic factors, and New Mexico does struggle with its economy, education, and access to health care. Did you see these factors play into New Mexico's high death rates?

CASTRO: When we conducted this analysis at the national level, we found that states that exhibited higher rates of poverty, lower levels of educational attainment, lower levels of interpersonal trust, and worse access to quality health care, those states tended to have worse outcomes, both in terms of the infection rate and the death rate.

New Mexico ranked 49th in terms of the poverty rate, and among the measure that we've used to quantify access to health care, New Mexico ranked 40th out of the 51 states plus Washington, DC. That certainly is playing a role in the high levels of infection and death that we saw in New Mexico.

KUNM: New Mexico did have robust mandates put in place from school closures, non essential business closures and masking. These mandates were controversial, but your study includes data on the utility of these mandates and their trade offs. What does this mean, exactly? And what were your findings?

CASTRO: Despite all this discourse ahead of the paper being published about the utility of mandates and what the trade offs might be, we found that one the mandates were associated with lower infection rates, and two that states didn't have to choose between keeping the infection and death rates low and having a healthy economy.

We did, however, find a trade off with regard to employment. And so that's not to say that, you know, we shouldn't use these policy tools. Because there's a trade off with employment, it's really a call to action. If we know that these tools which work have consequence of unemployment,you know, what, what policy measures can we take to protect individuals who are at risk of losing their job?

KUNM: In your study, you and your colleagues are urging for better policy, whether it be paid family and sick leave or even expanding Medicaid. Here in New Mexico, our legislature, this past session did not pass the paid family and sick leave bill, and many folks will be losing their Medicaid coverage. Why is it so important for policymakers, especially considering our outcomes, to think more strategically about better public health policy?

CASTRO: In terms of paid sick and family leave, many individuals were at a heightened risk of COVID because they weren't in a position where they could protect themselves in terms of socially distancing, working from home and you know, taking unpaid leave might not be an economic reality, and taking paid leave might not be an option. And it's so important to look out for the individuals that now we know are more vulnerable, right? The individuals that are living in poverty, individuals who are uninsured who have trouble accessing the health system, and we can avoid all of this unnecessary death by enacting policies that protect those individuals.


Assessing COVID-19 pandemic policies and behaviors and their economic and educational trade-offs across US states from Jan 1, 2020, to July 31, 2022: an observational analysis - The Lancet

Why America was uniquely vulnerable to COVID - Axios

COVID-19 Mortality by State Map - CDC

See How Vaccinations Are Going in Your County and State - New York Times

How New Mexico Controlled the Spread of COVID-19 - Scientific American

This coverage is made possible by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and KUNM listeners.

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.
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