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Coronavirus pandemic hits San Juan, McKinley counties hardest in New Mexico

Health officials hesitate to point to any one reason why two counties with 9 percent of New Mexico's population account for more than half of its COVID-19 deaths.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
  • Together, the two counties have totaled more than half of New Mexico's COVID deaths
  • They also have registered one-fourth of the state's coronavirus cases
  • The two counties comprise only a little more than 9% of New Mexico's population

FARMINGTON — Even though the rates of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19 have declined in San Juan and McKinley counties over the past few months, the northwest corner of New Mexico remains by far the state's hardest-hit area as the pandemic stretches into its seventh month.

According to the Sept. 30 figures posted on the Department of Health website, San Juan County and McKinley County appear to have the highest COVID mortality rates and highest percentage of population that has tested positive for COVID in the state, far exceeding their percentage of the state's population.

With 5.9% of the state's population, San Juan County has registered 11.4% of the state's cases and nearly 23% of its deaths. McKinley County has 3.4% of the state's population but has registered almost 15% of the state's cases and a whopping 29.3% of its deaths.

MORE:Latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

Together, the two counties have totaled more than half of New Mexico's COVID deaths and one-fourth of its cases — despite having only a little more than 9% of the state's population.

'There is no one root cause'

Despite that outsize impact, state and county health officials are hesitant to point to any single reason why the two counties have proven to be so vulnerable to the virus.

"There is no one root cause for the increase in cases in those specific counties," New Mexico Department of Health spokesman David Morgan states in an email in response to a series of questions from The Daily Times. "For example, some counties see increases after anything from a christening to a funeral. The case for increases in these counties are, in contact investigations, proving to be related to not enough COVID Safe Practices designed to reduce transmission, such as mask wearing, social distancing, frequent handwashing."

Mock patient Penny Hill is wheeled to a treatment tent during a March 5 preparatory drill at the San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington. The hospital began planning for impacts from the pandemic well before the first case was logged in San Juan County.

Janine Emery, the nurse supervisor for the San Juan County Public Health Office, reiterated Morgan's statement, saying a variety of factors — including gatherings in which people don't practice social distancing and an unwillingness to wear masks — likely have contributed to the high numbers.

Officials at the San Juan Regional Medical Center declined to be interviewed about the reasons for the COVID-19 figures in the two counties.

San Juan, McKinley outpace rest of New Mexico

The virus has not had as much of an impact in other parts of the state, even those that are far more densely populated than San Juan or McKinley counties.

For instance, Bernalillo County — which contains nearly one-third of the state's residents — has registered a comparatively small 22.4% of its cases and 20.2% of its deaths. Doña Ana County, with 10.4% of the state's residents, has had 11.6% of New Mexico's cases and only 6.3% of its deaths. And Santa Fe County, with 7.2% of the state's population, has fared best of all, with 3.5% percent of the total number of cases and 0.7% of the deaths.

"This is a combination of the early high rates of transmission experienced in San Juan and McKinley counties and underlying personal (e.g., pre-existing health conditions) and environmental conditions (access to health care and social services) that increase the risk of severe disease," Morgan states in his email.

Both San Juan County and McKinley County saw the pandemic extract an especially heavy toll in its first few months, with the Gallup area becoming a national COVID-19 hot spot. Since that time, transmission of the virus in both counties has slowed, and other parts of the state have begun to catch up, especially the Albuquerque metropolitan area.

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Jamie McCarty and Dr. Carl Smith of San Juan Regional Medical Center access a mock patient during a March 5 coronavirus preparatory drill at the hospital in Farmington.

Even so, San Juan and McKinley counties remain the leaders in mortality rate and the percentage of population that has tested positive for COVID-19.

"What you are looking at are cumulative cases relative to the population," Morgan states in response to those figures. "These rates will continue to increase as case numbers increase, but as long as new case counts remain lower than other parts of the state, the rates in other counties will begin to catch up."

How to track the COVID data

He suggested those interested in taking a different perspective on the issue consult the health department's 14-day average daily case rate, which reflects how the virus has spread in different locales across the state over there past two weeks. That data dashboard can be accessed at cvprovider.nmhealth.org/public-dashboard.html.

Those figures show the virus spreading much faster in the southern part of the state than in the northwest corner. For the period of Sept. 15 to Sept. 28, the positivity rate in San Juan County was 3.1%, and the rate for McKinley County was 2.4%.

A total of nine counties in southern New Mexico were experiencing a much higher positivity rate, including Chaves County at 6.7%, Lea County at 8.8% and Eddy County at 11.6%.

Emery said she wasn't sure it was appropriate to speculate about whether the cumulative figures for San Juan and McKinley counties would continue to move closer to the median as the pandemic lingers. She said her agency is just focused on reminding local residents to follow the COVID safe practices, including washing their hands often.

"It's hard to predict," she said.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.