As New Mexico prepares to shift from a two-week shutdown to fight a surge in COVID-19 to a new three-tiered, color-coded system of restrictions, the outlook isn’t good for most counties hoping to reopen businesses.
“Basically, the whole state is red,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday in a virtual news conference streamed live on Facebook.
Los Alamos was the only county with low enough rates of new cases and testing positivity for a spot in the middle, or “yellow,” category, allowing it to ease some business restrictions when the new system takes effect Wednesday. In counties that earn a green status, businesses can further expand operations and residents can hold gatherings of up to 20 people.
The Republican Party of New Mexico quickly blasted the new plan, arguing in a statement it is “nothing more than a colorful mirage in a land where hope is fading.”
Citing an analysis by New Mexico-based biostatistician Hubert Allen that examined the daily number of new cases in each county, the GOP said many counties may never make it out of the red zone.
Allen said the state will “be in the red … for 20 to 30 weeks.”
New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase, who also spoke at Monday’s news conference, acknowledged “it could be 30 weeks if nobody does anything different.”
Three New Mexico cities have appeared on a national list with the highest case counts per capita, Scrase said. Roswell was at the top of the list, followed by Gallup at No. 2. Hobbs ranked 20th in the nation.
More than 97,000 people in the state have tested positive for the coronavirus, including nearly 1,700 cases announced Monday. Health officials also reported another 28 New Mexico residents, including a Santa Fe woman, had died from COVID-19. Two of the deaths announced Monday were people “in their 30s with no underlying conditions,” the governor said.
Following a sharp rise in case numbers over the two months, health officials said some hospitals in the state already have reached their capacity and medical staff are strained ahead of what is expected to be another spike in illnesses due to holiday gatherings.
“We are in a very dangerous, critical situation,” Lujan Grisham said. “We really need to get to green. We get to green by exhibiting safe COVID practices.” Green, she added, “means we’re saving lives.”
As daily counts of COVID-19 cases climbed to unprecedented levels, Lujan Grisham tightened business restrictions and ordered many operations to close for what she called a temporary “reset” that took effect Nov. 16. The shutdown will last through Wednesday.
The governor announced last week her plan to ease restrictions in counties that meet certain testing criteria. On Monday, she said some restrictions also will be lifted even in counties with a red status. Restaurants can resume serving customers outdoors, for instance, and nonessential retail stores can open at 25 percent capacity. Close-contact businesses, such as gyms, also can operate at 25 percent capacity.
The state will release a current status for each county Wednesday and will then review testing and case count criteria, and update the county’s status every two weeks.
A county will be coded red if it has more than eight cases per 100,000 residents per day in a 14-day period and has more than 5 percent of tests coming back positive. It improves to yellow if either of those metrics falls below the threshold and moves on to green if it decreases both of them.
State Department of Health data showed Santa Fe County with 87.7 cases per 100,000 residents Monday and a test positivity rate of 15 percent.
The governor said the goal of the new system, rather than continuing to impose restrictions, is to empower communities to reopen economies by taking actions to slow the virus’s spread.
A county that moves up to a yellow or green status can implement less-restrictive standards for businesses immediately, she said, while those that improve and then suffer more severe outbreaks later — and must move back into red from a yellow or green status — will have 48 hours to comply.
Ultimately, she said, the state wants to add a “green-plus” tier that shows the county has managed the virus.
While daily counts of COVID-19 have fallen from a peak of more than 3,600 one day earlier this month, officials fear higher levels of travel and family gatherings in recent days will lead to more record numbers.
“I’m very worried about Thanksgiving,” Scrase said. “I think there were a lot more people getting together.”
It often takes up to two weeks for symptoms to develop.
Scrase said, “My biggest fear is that our health care workers will be working very, very long hours between Christmas and New Year’s.”
Lujan Grisham said the only way to slow the virus’s spread is for New Mexico residents to work together and to “take this much more seriously than we have” by staying home, wearing masks and following social-distancing guidelines.
“Think of this like a semi,” she said. “It can’t stop on a dime. So it’s the rules about tailgating — you don’t want to do that, you don’t want a truck right behind you.”