Top state health officials spoke about the threat of the Delta variant of COVID-19 in New Mexico and nationwide and encouraged New Mexicans to wear masks, following federal health guidelines.
The health officials came into the meeting with masks on.
“This is not like throwback baseball uniforms,” Dr. David Scrase, the state Human Services Secretary said. “But it does remind me a lot about 14, 15 months ago, when we started wearing masks at press conferences.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced earlier this week that those who are vaccinated but live in areas of substantial or high transmission should wear masks in public indoor settings.
Four counties in New Mexico (Eddy, Hidalgo, Lincoln and Otero counties) reach the CDC definition of “high” transmission as of Monday, while 14 counties, including Bernalillo, Sandoval and San Juan counties, reached the definition of “substantial” transmission.
Additionally, those who are vaccinated and had a known exposure to someone with COVID-19, or suspected to have COVID-19, should wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until they receive a negative test result.
Scrase said that he believed people across the state should return to wearing masks in public settings as a way to slow the spread, noting that people travel from county to county, especially in a small population state like New Mexico.
“Everyone, mask up,” he said.
The changes came as cases of those with the Delta variant grew, with COVID-19 cases reaching levels not seen in months in many parts of the country, including New Mexico.
On Wednesday, the state Department of Health reported 329 new cases, the most in a single day since March (though the state began combining Saturday, Sunday and Monday cases in one report since then).
“There’s a fourfold increase in cases today compared to July 1,” Scrase said. “That’s a serious problem.”
Additionally, hospitalizations reached 133 on Wednesday, the highest number since late May. But hospitalizations appear to be following the case rates in similar fashion to before the spread of the Delta variant, which could mean the strain is more transmissible but does not lead to more dire health outcomes. Still, the analysis of the variant is preliminary.
Scrase explained that initial studies have found the Delta variant, which has become the dominant variant across the United States in recent weeks, to have “more viral particles” in those who test positive than previous strains “which we believe means a lot more spread to other people.”
This, he said, leads to the possibility of a large increase in cases.
But, Department of Health Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajon said in the vaccine the state has a tool it did not a year ago when cases reached their peak.
As of Wednesday, 72.6 percent of those age 18 or above had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 64.5 percent were fully vaccinated.
But she pointed to low numbers among those younger, both in the 12-17 age range where just 37.7 percent were fully vaccinated and among those 28-24, where just 47 percent were fully vaccinated.
The rate of vaccination was also much lower among the state’s Hispanic/Latino population as well as the Black/African American population.
Scrase said while he thought the cases would continue to rise in the short term, the numbers would not hit the same heights as the peak because of the number of vaccinated individuals in the state.
The state is still digging into the data on so-called “breakthrough” cases of COVID-19, or positive tests among those who were vaccinated. While the vaccines are highly effective, they are not 100 percent effective.
Parajon said to remember that “the reason for the vaccine is to, for the most part, prevent illness, prevent hospitalizations, and deaths. And vaccines are doing really, really well at that.”