Scrase: New variant more infectious, not as deadly

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Jul. 15—The latest and most transmissible version of the coronavirus, which has plagued the world for 2 1/2 years, seemed of moderate concern to New Mexico's top health authority, who said Thursday the virus is following a normal evolutionary track.

The new variant, BA.5, which has become more prevalent in the state, shows the coronavirus is amplifying its ability to infect more hosts without killing them, acting state Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase told reporters during a virtual news conference.

"The virus actually wants to live with us, so it evolves over time to more easily infect people, but it reduces the number of people who are killed," Scrase said.

Still, as the variant increases its spread — Scrase said it now makes up about a third of cases in the state and will become the most common strain in August — Department of Health data shows COVID-19 continues to take lives. In the week between July 8 and Thursday, New Mexico saw 75 deaths, bringing the state's total toll to 8,035. The department reported 29 of those deaths Thursday.

Some health officials have expressed serious concerns about BA.5, an omicron offshoot that not only has a high rate of transmission but can evade a person's immunity bolstered by vaccines and previous infections. Changes in spike proteins enable the variant to thwart antibodies, which heightens experts' fears that, similar to the delta variant that arrived in summer 2021, BA.5 could spur a fall surge.

"Subvariants of omicron, like BA.4 and BA.5, continue to drive waves of cases, hospitalization and death around the world," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told reporters in a Tuesday briefing.

The director-general went on to say surveillance has fallen significantly — including testing and gene sequencing — making it more difficult to assess how transmissible it is and how well countermeasures work.

BA.5's rate of transmission is substantially higher than previous strains, though experts vary in their estimates of how much.

Transmission rate is measured by how many people are likely to catch the virus from an infected person. For the early coronavirus strains, it was three, which then escalated to somewhere between seven and nine with the first omicron variants. Some researchers have claimed the transmission rate for BA.5 is 18 — putting it on par with the measles, the most infectious disease in the world.

Scrase said he doesn't yet trust any of the numbers being put forth.

"They are purely estimates; they are not based on a lot of data," he said.

Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, public health professor at New Mexico State University, said in an interview earlier this week skyrocketing cases could overwhelm medical services. Residents should resume precautions such as testing, masking and avoiding crowds, he said.

However, Khubchandani acknowledged getting a pandemic-weary public to adhere to those measures would be challenging.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who faces a reelection challenge in November, drew heavy criticism for implementing some of the nation's most stringent pandemic-related public health orders. Since eliminating most restrictions and face mask requirements, her administration has not publicly spoken of conditions that might prompt a return to such measures.

Scrase said Thursday the state has no plans to resume mask mandates and social distancing requirements in response to the more infectious BA.5 variant.

"We're relying on New Mexicans to use their own good judgment to protect themselves and their families," he said.

State health officials have shifted their focus from case counts to hospitalizations and deaths to gauge the virus's severity and the progress being made to quell it.

The state is seeing more "breakthrough cases" — infections in people who have been fully vaccinated and even boosted — but fewer hospitalizations and deaths, Scrase said, "which are the primary things we're looking closely at."

A nearly 2-year-old vaccine simply doesn't work as well against a virus that has morphed into dozens of variations, he added.

Scrase said the state's overall number of cases is dipping, but New York Times data shows that while cases have slightly declined in the last couple of weeks, the seven-day average number rose nearly tenfold between April 1 and July 13, to 978 from 104. And the Health Department's COVID-19 dashboard shows 32 out of New Mexico's 33 counties awash in red — meaning case rates and test positivity rates are far higher than state targets earlier in the pandemic when the Lujan Grisham administration was using such data to determine whether counties could ease public health restrictions.

Cases are likely underreported, Scrase said, partly because more people are doing self-testing at home instead of PCR tests, which involve nose swabs and analysis, and yield results that are officially recorded.

For every positive PCR test, he said, there could be four or more unreported coronavirus cases. That actually would be a positive trend because it would mean far more cases resulted in no hospitalizations, he added.

Health Department data reported Thursday showed 173 people in the state were hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19, and 16 were on ventilators — or 9 percent of patients. Scrase said the lower rate of severe cases is an encouraging sign. In January 2021, roughly a quarter of COVID-19 patients in hospitals required ventilators as emergency rooms overflowed with cases.

Scrase also briefly discussed New Mexico's first monkeypox cases, citing three patients who have contracted the illness so far.

"A very, very, very small number of people are going to get it," Scrase said.

The virus is passed mainly through skin-on-skin contact and, unlike the coronavirus, can't be spread aerially, he said.

Though he added it is possible for infected people to spread it through items they've touched, such as utensils, clothing and bed sheets.

The 21-day incubation period for monkeypox makes contract tracing difficult, Scrase said. A person who catches this virus will be ill for two to four weeks.

The state will receive 362 doses of monkeypox vaccine, he said, enough to inoculate 181 people with the two-dose series.