Top New Mexico health official: Coronavirus causing less hospitalizations

Aug. 5—The surge in COVID-19 cases spurred by the more infectious BA.5 variant has hit a plateau in New Mexico, while hospitalizations hover at less than a quarter of where they were in January, when the deadlier delta strain raged across the country.

Those trends are good news overall in a 2 1/2 -year pandemic that has felt at times as though it might never abate for more than a brief spell.

The most encouraging development is the 164 people hospitalized with COVID-19 compared to 709 patients seven months ago, acting state Health Secretary David Scrase said Thursday during an online news conference.

"Which means that the disease itself seems to be causing a lot less hospitalizations as a percentage of people who get COVID," Scrase said. "It's a less virulent, less aggressive strain in some ways."

Scrase noted only six of the patients are on ventilators, a fraction of the 136 who required the breathing devices in late January. In all, just 3.6 percent of the patients need ventilators, down drastically from the 20 percent-plus who required them during the delta outbreak, he said.

A grimmer trend is deaths related to the disease surging recently to double digits per day, Scrase said. Still, the chance of someone dying from BA.5 is much lower than from the delta variant, he said.

However, this newest coronavirus variant concerned health officials because it could evade vaccines and immune systems bolstered by previous infections.

Nationally, BA.5 has become the dominant strain, accounting for about 86 percent of COVID-19 cases, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's data tracking site.

New Mexico's daily case numbers are about 900 in the latest seven-day rolling average, according to statewide data.

Scrase said he and other state health officials have shifted away from using case counts as the metric for gauging the severity of an outbreak and instead focus on hospitalizations and deaths. That puts New Mexico in step with the CDC in measuring COVID-19's impact, he said.

Still, average daily numbers in many New Mexico counties are above 28 cases per 100,000, the CDC's current threshold for a high infection rate.

Regionally, counties that exceed the high mark are Santa Fe, 42; Rio Arriba, 43; Bernalillo, 37; and Los Alamos at 38.

Counties with some of the highest tallies have struggled with outbreaks throughout the pandemic. They include McKinley, 68; Roosevelt, 67; Doña Ana, 55; and Grant with 53.

Scrase said a vaccine that specifically targets omicron variants such as BA.5 could become available as early as September. The Biden administration is buying 171 million doses to distribute through the fall and winter.

People can still get the current boosters if they qualify for them, and still receive the omicron vaccine if it's rolled out in a couple of months, he said.

New Mexico's less severe cases reflect the national trend, which is prompting the CDC to relax COVID-19 guidelines, including for schools, as early as Friday.

The changes would ease quarantine rules for people exposed to the virus and would no longer recommend students stay six feet apart at schools or receive regular screen testing as a preventive measure, CNN reported. The updated guidelines also would eliminate frequent testing of students who might have been exposed to the virus, a measure known as "test to stay."

Meanwhile, monkeypox has grown into enough of a threat for the White House to declare the U.S. outbreak a national health emergency Thursday — an effort to free up federal funding to combat the outbreak.

The virus is passed mainly through skin-on-skin contact, though it is possible for infected people to spread it through items they've handled, such as utensils, clothing and bedsheets, state Deputy Health Secretary Laura Parajon said.

The virus has a 21-day incubation period, and a person who catches it will be ill for two to four weeks, Parajon said. It often begins with fever and a headache, and then lesions or sores appear, she said.

Nearly all cases thus far have involved men who have had sex with other men.

Parajon noted that although gay men are a high-risk group, anyone can catch monkeypox.

The vaccination regimen is similar to the one for the coronavirus — two doses administered four weeks apart.

With the limited supply of monkeypox vaccine, health officials have focused inoculation efforts — 256 doses so far — on those who might have been exposed or who fall into the higher-risk groups, she said.

Although 6,600 cases have been confirmed nationally, New Mexico so far has only had 10 people with monkeypox, Parajon said. All say they contracted it while outside of the state, which means community spread within New Mexico hasn't occurred yet, she said.

Monkeypox isn't hitting New Mexico as hard as many other states due to its less-dense population, she said.

"We're ahead of the game," Parajon said, but cautioned it could change.