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Farmington, San Juan County seek clarity on how COVID-19 test-positivity rates are set

Officials expected to reach less-restrictive Yellow Level that allows more business reopenings when this week's numbers were announced

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — News that San Juan County just barely missed the state's criteria for relaxing COVID-19 closure restrictions and allowing more business reopenings surprised some who track the state's publicly-released health data.

Based on that data, they thought the county’s test positivity rate for COVID-19 was closer to 4%, well under the 5% cutoff that would have allowed the area to move from the Red Level into the less-restrictive Yellow Level this week.

“Our numbers don’t match the state, we don’t understand why and we’re looking for clarity,” said county spokesperson Devin Neeley.

San Juan County and the City of Farmington have submitted an Inspection of Public Records Act request to the New Mexico Department of Health seeking information about how the test positivity rates are calculated.

"The State performs an intensive review process to ensure accuracy for both cases and tests," Department of Health spokesperson Matt Bieber said via email. "For example, positive tests are counted only once no matter how many additional positive tests a person has. In addition, while the dashboard represents 'data based on info we received today,' the Red Yellow Green analysis provides a highly accurate picture for a two-week period of time." 

Mayor Nate Duckett said Human Services Department Cabinet Secretary Dr. David Scrase has explained to the city that some of the tests are not included in the calculation. He said he understands those reasons, like duplicate tests. Duckett said he also understands why people who are incarcerated and may not be interacting with the general community might not be included in the calculations.

"The problem is it's not very transparent," he said.

A health care professional collects a sample during the free testing site for COVID-19 on May 5 at Shiprock High School in Shiprock. After the test-positivity rate was slightly too high to move to the yellow tier, San Juan County and Farmington have requested information on the way the state calculates the rate.

Duckett has also sent an email to the Department of Health arguing that the county is so close to the 5% cutoff that it should be allowed into the yellow tier. He explained that the test positivity rate, as calculated by the state, was 5.009%. This was rounded to 5.01% in the publicly-released documents. Duckett argued that it should have been rounded down to 5%, which would have allowed for some indoor dining as well as other less restrictive business rules.

The difference between the county remaining in the red tier or moving to the yellow tier was a single positive COVID-19 test. The county would have also made it into the yellow tier if there had been 15 more negative COVID-19 tests.

"We recognize that on occasion, counties may fall just above or below a threshold, but the standard is still the standard," Bieber said. "San Juan County has made incredible progress and may well move to Yellow next time."

San Juan County Commission Chairman John Beckstead highlighted the economic impact of the county remaining in the red tier.

“The residents of San Juan County are asking for clarity because the future of small businesses rests on one hundredth of a percentage point," Beckstead said in a statement to The Daily Times. "So far, the state has not been able to provide that clarity. We recognize that residents are taking covid-safe practices seriously — the drastically reduced positivity rate and number of people who have been vaccinated is evidence of that. We will continue to address this with the state because our local businesses hang in the balance.”

Duckett said he would encourage community members to continue doing what they have been doing to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and to support local businesses.

"We're moving in the right direction," he said. "All these signs are pointing to that there's a light at the end of this tunnel."

He said community members should get registered and get vaccinated. On Feb. 12, the city was working to vaccinate people at the Bonnie Dallas Senior Center.

"We just want to encourage people to get vaccinated," he said. "Immunity is the key. And let's continue to keep trying to push those positive cases and hospitalizations down."

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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