December 30, 2021

2021 Top Stories #2: COVID continues

See our entire countdown of 2021 top stories, to date, here.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues throughout the country, one thing changed from 2020, when much of the world was first impacted, into 2021: Variants.

Scientists kept close track of mutations made to COVID-19 and which variants were considered of concern. 

Some variants were more aggressive in infections than others, most notably the Delta variant, first designated as a variant of interest by the World Health Organization in early April. By May 11, it was called a variant of concern.

The more contagious variant quickly became the dominant variant across the globe, including in New Mexico. By late June, the majority of all COVID-19 cases in New Mexico were the Delta variant, overtaking the Alpha variant. By the beginning of August, it was virtually every case.

The Delta variant led to not only increased cases, but increased hospitalizations and deaths. In the fall and into winter, New Mexico started entering levels of COVID-19 not seen since the previous year.

This came even as New Mexico outperformed most states in getting its population fully vaccinated (as of mid-December, just over 75 percent of all New Mexicans age 18 or older were fully vaccinated). But the new variants and additional data on how long vaccines remained fully effective led to a new push: for booster shots. Just under 30 percent of New Mexicans aged 18 or older received a booster shot as of mid-December (those age 16 or older who received both shots of the Pfizer or Moderna shots six months ago or those who received the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine two months ago are eligible for a booster shot).

The state also pushed for increased vaccinations among children; 56.3 percent of those age 12-17 are fully vaccinated and 10.5 percent of those age 5-11.

But amidst the push for increased vaccinations and the strain of cases from the Delta variant surge, another variant of concern emerged: the Omicron variant.

The variant was first detected in South Africa (it was later found that cases had occurred earlier in Europe). In other countries, Omicron has already outcompeted the Delta variant and appears to be even more contagious, as part of the more-than 30 mutations to the virus’ spike proteins. 

Scientists are still studying if the Omicron variant differs in severity (stronger or weaker) than previous variants when it comes to illness and symptoms and how effective the current vaccines are in countering the impacts (early indications show booster shots are key in slowing the spread).

Omicron and Delta are merely the two most prominent variants. Others, like Lambda and Mu, proved to be less successful in spreading.

As the calendar turns to 2022, scientists in New Mexico and elsewhere will continue to look for new variants—and rush to find out what impact they have on the public at large.