Vaccinations still outpace COVID-19 in New Mexico, but daily cases increase

CDC forecasts an increase in cases through May followed by a decline based on vaccination rates

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

SANTA FE – New Mexico remains on track to reopen by the end of June, state health officials said Wednesday.

Yet even as public health mandates continued to relax across most of the state, they acknowledged during a news conference that declines in daily COVID-19 cases early in 2021 had leveled off and were ticking upward again.

On April 29, data from the state health department showed the seven-day average of daily cases at 227, slightly over the state's goal of 210. The spread rate, which measures new infections per case, sat right at the state's target of 1:05. 

Vaccinations were outpacing new infections by a ratio of 50:1, according to state Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, but that ratio has declined from a previous high of 72:1

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said New Mexico was progressing toward Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's goal of retiring the state's limits on business activity and mass gatherings once 60 percent of residents age 16 and up were fully vaccinated. 

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New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins participates in a video news conference on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

As of Wednesday, nearly 59 percent of that population had received at least an initial dose of vaccine, with 45.4 percent receiving either the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both doses of the two-shot vaccines developed by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna. 

Meanwhile, Collins reported that nearly 10,000 residents between 12 and 15 years old had already signed up on the state's COVID-19 vaccine registry, in anticipation of federal authorization for vaccinating that age group. 

She said the health department was continuing to stage town halls and enlist community leaders and primary care physicians to encourage more residents to get vaccinated, as vaccinations have slowed, particularly in southeastern counties bordering Texas. 

Scrase said several variants of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus were active in New Mexico, with the highly infectious B.1.1.7 variant first identified in the United Kingdom the most prevalent. Thus far, however, the three vaccines in use against the coronavirus appeared to be effective against them, he said. 

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It underscored, he remarked, the need to continue wearing face masks in public settings and to continue maintaining physical distance from non-household members. He added: "The best defense against any new variant is getting as many New Mexicans vaccinated as we can." 

While cases were at a plateau, Scrase said hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients were starting to trend downward except in San Juan County.

Deaths were decreasing as well, Scrase said. While daily reports of COVID-19 deaths have sometimes been high, he noted that those updates still include late reporting of deaths that occurred during the winter surge. 

Counties should watch data, not color

On Wednesday, the health department updated New Mexico's color-coded COVID-19 risk map, with 30 of the state's 33 counties at the least restrictive level of restrictions on mass gatherings and business activity.

The New Mexico county COVID-19 map was updated Wednesday, May 5, 2021 showing almost all counties, including Doña Ana County, in the Turquoise Level.

Two counties — Catron and Valencia — progressed from Yellow to Green (the second least-restrictive level), while Chaves County remained Yellow. No counties were at the most restrictive Red level. 

It was the first biweekly update since health officials revised county risk criteria last week, adding a metric for vaccinations within counties and increasing the acceptable thresholds for test positivity rates and average daily cases over a two-week period. The changes effectively loosened public health restrictions in most counties. 

Scrase pointed out, however, that counties should pay attention to their data, not simply what color they are on the map. 

Under the new criteria, counties are promoted to Turquoise if they remain at Green for two updates (or four weeks). Once Turquoise, a county remains at that status for at least four weeks. 

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That means counties that are Turquoise may not actually be meeting all three criteria for the lowest risk status: Average daily cases of 10 or less, test positivity rates of 7.5 percent or less, and a full vaccination rate of 40 percent (which increases 5 percent every two weeks). 

On Wednesday, several Turquoise counties actually had daily case averages in excess of 10, the highest being San Juan County with 28.8, followed by Quay with 26.4.

If New Mexico's progress toward the governor's 60 percent vaccination goal for reopening slows, and daily cases continue to increase, that could lead to counties moving down in status before the Red to Green framework is retired, under the current criteria.

New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase speaks during a video news conference on Wednesday, May 5, 2021.

Scrase did not dwell on that possibility, reiterating that the state was on track to retire the system and reopen, and encouraged wearing masks and getting vaccinated. 

"We're so far ahead, and because there's no evidence that any of these variants are resistant to vaccines, we still think we have a leg up," he said. 

Vaccine supplies and hesitancy

According to health department data from Tuesday, 752,638 New Mexicans age 16 and up were fully vaccinated, or 44.8 percent of the eligible population. This outpaced the national rate of 32.3 percent, with 107.3 million people fully vaccinated in the U.S. as of Wednesday.

Collins said that because some states are now ordering less than their allotted supply of COVID-19 vaccines, the federal government was redistributing those supplies to states that need them. 

She outlined various outreach efforts to promote vaccinations and answered questions and concerns about their safety and efficacy. While some academic institutions were considering making vaccinations a requirement for enrollment, she noted that making them mandatory was complicated by the fact that all three are authorized for emergency use only, and are still undergoing the clinical trial process.

The health department also announced an effort Wednesday to sign primary care physicians up as vaccine providers via the department's online vaccine provider portal and encourage their patients to take the vaccine.

"Primary care providers have longstanding relationships with their patients and are ideally placed to hold open, trusting conversations and encourage vaccinations," Collins said in a written statement ahead of the news conference.

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And because some communities still have less access to vaccine than others, Collins said the state was not contemplating the adoption of a "passport strategy" or system requiring proof of vaccination.

CDC predicts a wave 

Nationwide, the U.S. has had 32.5 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 578,794 deaths, as reported by the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. In New Mexico, 198,781 cases had been confirmed as of Wednesday, with 92.5 percent of those cases designated as recovered and 4,085 fatalities.

Modeling by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projects nationwide increases in new cases, hospitalizations and deaths during May, with a sharp decline anticipated by July — with the pace of decline to be determined by continued vaccination uptake. 

The increase in cases is predicted based on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 variants, including the B.1.1.7 variant, as well as the relaxation of local public health measures and reduced compliance. Those trends, according to the report, "could lead to substantial increases in severe COVID-19 outcomes, even with improved vaccination coverage."

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.