September 15, 2021

State sees fewer COVID-19 cases as Delta surge wanes

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The state’s current surge of COVID-19 cases, driven by the Delta variant, appears to be slowing down in recent weeks, top health officials said in a press conference on Wednesday.

Hospitalizations are still at a very high rate, with 375 people hospitalized for COVID-19 as of Wednesday, and acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said they are still going through a “crunch of volume”—but will likely avoid the need to implement crisis standards of care if hospitalizations follow falling COVID-19 totals.

One large reason why is the increasing number of vaccinations. As of Wednesday, the state reported that 79 percent of all New Mexicans 18 or older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while 69.2 percent had completed their vaccination series (either with both shots of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine). And among those 12-17, 62.5 percent had received at least one dose and 51.6 percent were fully vaccinated.

“Every week, we’re going about between a half a percent and 1 percent more, that’s, that’s more lives saved every day,” Department of Health Deputy Secretary Dr. Laura Parajón said.

And even as a growing majority of New Mexicans are vaccinated, the large majority of new cases, hospitalizations and especially deaths related to COVID-19 are among those who are unvaccinated.

Scrase said that according to state data in the four weeks ending on Sept. 14, 80.3 percent of confirmed COVID-19 cases are among those who are unvaccinated, 88.4 percent of hospitalizations for the disease are among the unvaccinated and 97.6 percent of all COVID-19-related deaths are among those who are unvaccinated. 

“You’re 40 times more likely to die of COVID [if you’re unvaccinated] in the previous four week period that our epidemiology department is quoting here,” Scrase said.

He expected hospitalizations to drop soon, along with the current drop in cases.

“We see this at the beginning of an easing, and I really hope for the sake of all my very good friends who worked in hospitals that this is the beginning of the end of this very, very difficult time for them,” Scrase said. “I won’t say who said this, but actually the phrase, at our [Medical Advisory Team] meeting on Tuesday, came up it was I think the phrase was ‘double decker beds in hallways.’”

Deaths, Scrase noted, tend to lag behind hospitalizations and he expected it would take several more weeks before death certificates for COVID-19 deaths are sent to the state.

In-person learning not going anywhere

The health officials were also joined by Dr. Kurt Steinhaus, the secretary-designate of the Public Education Department.

Steinhaus said that the priority for the state was for in-person learning to remain and said that since the start of the school year, only 30 schools made the decision to transition to remote learning, all of which did so at the local level.

“That’s about three percent [of schools],” Steinhaus said.

One potentially big reason is the low rate of positive tests among teachers. In the department’s surveillance testing, just 0.74 percent of all tests came back positive between Sept. 5 and Sept. 11. 

Scrase said the low rate “means we’re really doing an exceptional job with this asymptomatic testing.” 

Scrase also said there was no real discussion toward moving back to remote-only learning, even as cases spiked with the delta variant recently.

“We really need to step back and look at what are the things we can do in the long haul, to prevent the spread of covid, without having to go back and forth with this on/off switch, and mandates, what are some things we can all live with,” Scrase said. “And you know, frankly, from my perspective, remote learning is not something we can all live with for the long haul.”

Steinhaus said the state is “in the middle of a full-court press to keep in-person learning going and to keep schools safe. And so we have not had a lot of discussion about any statewide transition to remote.”