New Mexico in 'uncomfortable plateau' with virus cases as state has higher infection rate

Oct. 28—Despite New Mexico's overall high vaccination rate and mask mandate, its coronavirus caseload has surged higher than those of some states with lower inoculation rates and fewer restrictions.

State health officials said they have a few theories why but no definite answers.

"We don't know. We wish we knew more," Dr. David Scrase, acting state health secretary, said during an online conference Wednesday.

One possibility is New Mexico led the country in inoculating residents early in the vaccine rollouts, so it could lead the nation now in waning immunity, Scrase said, noting that vaccinations lose their efficacy over time.

The latest figures in the New York Times' COVID-19 tracker show New Mexico having 86 cases per 100,000 residents, outpacing South Dakota's 36, Texas' 15 and Florida's nine — states with lower vaccination rates and no mask requirement.

Texas and Florida, in fact, have barred cities and school districts from imposing mask rules.

Dr. Christine Ross, New Mexico's state epidemiologist, said there's no way to know how well certain states are doing without knowing how widely and frequently they test people for the virus.

Other medical data also is required to pin down whether the states are curbing spread or whether information gaps exist, Ross said, adding "there are many variables to look at."

One thing that's certain: New Mexico's numbers of cases and hospitalizations have increased after the state enjoyed a downward trend prior to the more infectious delta variant taking hold — and the caseload is not letting up, Ross said.

"Here in New Mexico, we continue to sit at an uncomfortable plateau," she said.

The state Department of Health reported Wednesday that 389 people were hospitalized for COVID-19, well above the hospitals' normal capacity.

Many people's health declined during the pandemic, partly because they put off medical care, Scrase said; that's part of what's causing the heavier flow of patients, he added.

One of the best ways to counter the current outbreak is immunizing the unvaccinated and getting boosters to the fully vaccinated before their earlier shots wear off, Scrase said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved the Pfizer vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds and guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected in the coming week, said Dr. Laura Parajon, deputy secretary for the state Health Department.

The three health officials agreed that vaccinating children will significantly contain the spread.

Scrase noted that earlier this year, three teachers were infected for every student, and now that statistic has flipped, as teachers received shots and many children remain unvaccinated.

Meanwhile, booster shots are available to anyone who's at least 65. Otherwise, you must be at least 18 in these situations:

—Living in a long-term care facility.

—Suffering underlying medical conditions.

—Living or working in high-risk settings.

—Anyone who received a Johnson & Johnson shot can get a booster after two months.

Roughly 125,000 boosters have been administered since August, and Scrase expects that number to increase exponentially when the shots become available to the larger population.

All three agreed that people must remain vigilant about wearing masks indoors, avoiding crowds and social distancing, even though most people have grown tired of the pandemic and are inclined to let up.

This week, COVID-19 deaths passed 5,000, a reminder that the pandemic is still here and still potentially lethal, Scrase said.

Still, there are no plans to reinstate previous restrictions, such as reduced capacity at businesses and bans on indoor dining, Scrase said. People need to adhere to precautions, get vaccinated if they're not and receive boosters as soon as they can, he said.

"We're trying to find a way to live with this virus until it find a better way to get it completely eradicated," Scrase said.