July 18, 2020

Health officials: COVID-19 is spreading among younger New Mexicans

Andy Lyman

Younger New Mexicans are now contracting COVID-19 at higher rates than earlier in the pandemic, according to the state Human Services Department Sec. David Scrase. 

The state has reported over 4,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the first two weeks of July, bringing the state’s total to 16,456. 

“This big surge in cases is in large part contributed to by younger folks,” Scrase said during a Friday afternoon press briefing. “Clearly, the proportion of 20-29 year olds [with COVID] has gone up.”

Source: New Mexico Health Services Department

The state doesn’t have data on mobility by age group, but Scrase said he’d bet “that people in these younger age groups where the cases are way up are traveling much more every day.”

On the other hand, cases among older New Mexicans have held steady, despite the increase in new cases reported each day. 

“I think it’s that very old people know they shouldn’t be going in anywhere, and they are staying home,” Scrase said. 

Scrase said cases have increased among children and young adults as well in recent days. 

“Kids 0-17 and young adults 18-20, that number is drifting up,” Scrase said. “It looks like it’s in the 15 percent range now, which is higher than it was last week.”

That’s a troubling development as education leaders and the state grapple with developing safe protocols for children for the upcoming school year.

County surges

The state Department of Health (DOH) is now seeing cases increase each day in each region of the state and at rates that are higher than in the early days of the pandemic, which Scrase indicated is cause for concern. 

“That uptick is contributed to by virtually every region. That’s what’s bothering our epidemiologists,” Scrase said. “COVID is everywhere, it’s everywhere people are, it’s all across the state, it’s not just in one of our regions anymore.”

Counties in the northwest quadrant of the state, the hardest-hit region to date, are now generally reporting fewer new cases each day, but other regions of the state are seeing surges in new cases. 

“The southeast is sticking out like a sore thumb,” Scrase said. “Lea County on Tuesday had a growth rate of 6.9 percent — a day. Really fast growth in that part of the state. We’re watching that closely.”

He also pointed to Doña Ana County, which has seen a 72 percent increase in COVID-19 cases since July 1st. Scrase said the growth in new cases in the southeast is likely being driven by individuals traveling between New Mexico and Texas. 

“We know there’s lots of back and forth travel to Texas. Some of that we can’t stop, we can’t close our borders,” he said. “It’s probably something we’ll see during the rest of the pandemic. Any characteristics of people getting together with other people, commerce, or anything else, will produce an inevitable increase in cases.”

Bernalillo County has also seen a significant increase in cases. Scrase described the growth as “almost a vertical line uptick.” 

“You can see from the data just in the past six or seven days, Bernalillo County has added 653 cases,” Scrase said. “The total positive cases in Bernalillo, by early next week — if things keep up the way they are — will surpass McKinley County as the county with the most cases.”

As of Friday, McKinley County had a total of 3,724 cases, representing just a 9.6 percent increase in cases since July 1st. Bernalillo County, on the other hand, now has a total of 3,578 cases, representing a 64 percent increase in cases since July 1st.  

Source: New Mexico Health Services Department

Scrase again pointed to younger individuals and increased mobility as the main drivers of the surge in cases in Bernalillo County. 

“We’re seeing a very significant increase in mobility, that has now levelled off; we’re seeing more cases in 20-30 year olds and 30-40 year olds than we had before, [and] people getting together, larger groups of people,” he said. 

He also pointed out that the 4th of July holiday weekend was roughly two weeks ago. 

“This would be the time that we’d see a big uptick in cases from that,” he said

Testing update

DOH has processed 452,298 tests as of Friday, representing more than 20 percent of the state’s population. DOH has processed over 5,000 tests almost every day in the last two weeks, a feat Scrase credited to DOH Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel and the private labs and hospitals working with the state. 

The state has now documented over 16,000 cases of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, a milestone that was unthinkable earlier in the pandemic, Scrase said. 

“I remember when we talked about this early on, people could not comprehend that we could have 16,000 cases in New Mexico. But we do,” he said, adding that the total COVID-19 cases are still below 1 percent of the state’s population.

But the uptick in cases is not simply a result of increased testing, Scrase said, pointing to calculations indicating that for every doubling in the numbers of tests processed, the number of cases increases roughly 13 percent. 

The state’s seven-day rolling average isn’t looking good either, a fact that triggered the state to be added to New York’s air travel advisory

“Looking at this metric, we’re doing poorly,” he said. “We were at about a hundred [earlier in the pandemic], and now we’re up to a rolling average of 270 cases a day. Not good.”

As of early Friday, the state’s positivity rate was 3.91 percent, below the target of 5 percent, which Scrase said is good news. 

“3.91 percent places us in the top five states in terms of our positivity rate,” he said, 

Hospitalizations expected to increase

With the increase in new cases coming from across all regions of the state, Scrase said the number of hospitalizations will also continue to increase. 

“But we’ve got some really good news: a lot less people on ventilators,” Scrase said. Earlier in the pandemic, as much as 40 percent of COVID-19 patients in hospitals were intubated. 

“Now it’s down to about 20 percent,” he said. 

He said doctors have a better sense of how to treat patients with COVID-19 to avoid placing them on ventilators, and added that use of remdesivir, a drug developed to treat Ebola, may be helping, too. 

RELATED: UNM Hospital conducts trials with antimalarials and ebola drugs for possible COVID-19 treatment

“There’s a theory that the remdesivir that we’re using for people to keep them off the ventilators may be working,” he said. 

He added that the biggest proportion of hospitalizations are still individuals over 50.   

Source: New Mexico Health Services Department

Finally, some good news: asymptomatic cases on the rise

As testing capacity has increased in recent weeks, Scrase said the state has seen a downward trend in symptomatic cases, and a rise in asymptomatic cases. 

Source: New Mexico Health Services Department

This upward trend in asymptomatic cases is a good thing,” he said. “I’m taking it as a positive trend.”

While the state’s contact tracing period is still longer than the state’s goal of 36 hours, the increase in asymptomatic positive cases could indicate the state is doing a good job of getting in touch with people and having them isolate if they test positive before they can spread the virus to others.  

He said it might also indicate that people are now more informed about COVID-19 and are proactively getting tested. 

But the take home message was the same it’s been for weeks now. Stay home, only go out if you need to, and wear a mask. 

He pointed to a recent incident in which two hair stylists who tested positive for COVID-19 after working with over 100 clients. Because both stylists and all the clients wore masks, contact tracing later determined that of the 76 individuals who were located, all of them tested negative for COVID-19. 

“This is a remarkable anecdote on the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread and transmission of COVID,” he said. 

But Scrase emphasized the importance of wearing any mask properly. The mask should cover the nose, mouth and chin, ideally. He also said the state isn’t recommending the use of masks with valves. 

“Those don’t prevent the spread of COVID,” he said, because the valves allow air to move from the user’s mouth to the surrounding environment.

“Cloth masks and bandanas aren’t ideal, but they’re better than nothing…and they substantially lower transmission,” he said.