Scrase announces retirement as state human services secretary

By Phill Casaus and Daniel J. Chacón

Dr. David Scrase, whose near-weekly briefings during the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic often served as a barometer of the state’s desperate fight against the virus, announced he will retire from state government late next month. The announcement came late Friday afternoon, often a time when officials release surprising or disquieting news. Scrase, the Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department, is one of the few holdovers remaining from the original members of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet in early 2019. In 2021 and 2022, Scrase did double duty. He ran Human Services while also heading the Department of Health on an interim basis in the maw of the pandemic, as the state’s tenuous health care system teetered beneath the weight of critical cases.

NMDOH asks for $2 million for funding family planning and women’s reproductive health services

The New Mexico Department of Health will request $2 million for the family planning and women’s reproductive health services from the New Mexico Legislature to replace reductions in federal funds to maintain current family planning services. The $2 million is part of an 11 percent increase DOH is requesting from the Legislature in 2023. According to a news release, DOH is asking for the increase in its Fiscal Year 2024 budget request due to the “massive disruption” the COVID-19 pandemic has caused. The funds will replace reductions in federal funds and will maintain, rather than increase, current family planning services, according to the release. Other DOH budget priorities include $5.8 million additional funding for School-Based Health Centers to expand services to include primary care, behavioral health and suicide prevention for the 25,073 students who attend 70 rural and Tribal community schools.

State crosses 5,000 COVID-19 deaths

State health officials announced on Monday that New Mexico reached 5,000 COVID-19 related deaths. The news on Monday came as the state announced 15 additional deaths related to COVID-19 on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, for a total of 5,002 COVID-19 related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic in March of last year. “These aren’t just numbers – they are our family members, friends, and neighbors, and we grieve for them and their families,” New Mexico Department of Health (DOH) Secretary Dr. David Scrase said. 

According to the New York Times COVID-19 tracker, New Mexico has the 20th-highest number of COVID-19 deaths per capita, with 238 per 100,000 residents. The state’s latest mortality update, from last week, showed that over 2,200 deaths were among those 75 or older, nearly 1,200 among those 65-74 and over 1,200 among those 45-64. The mortality update, along with other epidemiological reports, are usually released in the middle of the week.

Mask mandate for public, indoor spaces returns; vaccination requirements expanded

In an effort to curb the rising number of COVID-19 cases, the governor announced a mask mandate for all public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status, which she was hopeful would be enough to blunt the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant. “We’re going to use masks and vaccines to blunt the spread of COVID and see if we can’t rebalance where we are as a state, particularly given the Delta variant,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a press conference on Tuesday. The mask mandate will go into place on Friday, Aug. 20 and last until at least Sept. 15.

Pandemic burnout exacerbates state’s nursing shortage problem

The hospital was full. People were crammed in hallways, in closets, in a repurposed nursery — everywhere a bed could fit. Nurses, doctors, the whole hospital staff were still scrambling to care for everyone coming into the emergency room. It had been like that for more than a year when a nurse — who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to impact future job opportunities — decided she couldn’t go on like that. She couldn’t keep training other nurses fresh from school who’d never worked in a hospital, and others from out of state who were more experienced, but who knew nothing of Albuquerque, or of that particular hospital.

Health officials continue push for New Mexicans to become vaccinated

While over two-thirds of New Mexicans age 16 or older have received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot, the number who are fully vaccinated remains below the state’s 60 percent goal. As of Wednesday’s update, Department of Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said 67.6 percent of all New Mexicans age 16 or older had received at least one shot, while 58.7 percent are fully vaccinated, with either both Pfizer or Moderna shots or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. “We need 21,307 boosters or [Johnson & Johnson] shots to go before we hit 60 percent,” Collins said. There are currently 85,000 people who are eligible for the second shot, while anyone who hasn’t received a vaccination shot yet is eligible for the Johnson & Johnson shot. The state also has been contacting those who received COVID-19 vaccination shots in other states to confirm that they are fully vaccinated.

NM ready to expand vaccinations—if feds send more supply

Major hospital systems in New Mexico say that they are prepared to administer many more COVID-19 shots as they become available. But the nature of the supply chain is not only out of their hands, it’s out of the hands of the state, which relies on distribution from the federal government. Department of Health Secretary-designate Dr. Tracie Collins said that, as of Sunday, the state had received 221,375 COVID-19 vaccine doses from the federal government and administered 203,830, or over 90 percent. “New Mexico [has] the third-highest vaccine administration rate among all states in the country,” Collins said. “So we have a lot to be proud of.”

The limiting factor for New Mexico Collins said, echoing what health officials had said earlier, was available supply.

Governor, health officials discuss COVID-19 vaccine efforts

The governor and New Mexico health officials are optimistic that they have enough capacity to administer vaccines—with a bottleneck at the number of vaccines the state receives from the federal government. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham acknowledged that the state has also seen its fair share of hiccups, including an overwhelmed call center devoted to vaccinations because of unexpected demand from the public. 

“We should stop underestimating that and we can do better, straight up. We can just do better,” she said. But she also placed blame on a much-criticized federal distribution of the vaccines to states. “The planning by the federal government was very poor,” the governor said.

State to reimpose shutdown starting Monday: ‘We are in a life or death situation’

Warning that the state of New Mexico has been stretched to its brink by the virus, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that the state would “reset” things by reimposing the strictest COVID-19 restrictions since the early days of the pandemic. “You should stay at home except for only the most essential trips for health, safety and welfare,” Lujan Grisham said. The new public health order will close all non-essential businesses and cap occupancy at essential businesses at 25 percent, or 75 people, whichever was lower. Non-essential businesses include places like gyms, restaurants, barbershops, spas and many other businesses that have been operating in recent months. Restaurants will be able to operate curbside service and delivery, but will not be able to serve in-person diners either indoor or outdoor during the shutdown.

Hospital capacity a looming problem amid COVID-19 surge, and restaurants have to get COVID-safe certified

“The state of New Mexico last week experienced its worst week for COVID-19 infections throughout the duration of the pandemic,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a press conference on Tuesday with other state officials. She also acknowledged troubling patterns when it came to hospitalizations. Because of this, she announced further restrictions on businesses, including restaurants, beginning on Friday. But she did not put a stop to indoor dining—as long as restaurants complete the state’s COVID-safe certification program. Restaurants that complete the online program will be able to continue serving 25 percent of maximum capacity of indoor patrons, along with outdoor service.