Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday appointed a new health secretary to lead the state through a pandemic that has worsened in recent weeks, with rising numbers of cases straining New Mexico hospitals.
Dr. Tracie C. Collins, dean of the College of Population Health at the University of New Mexico, will head the Department of Health and help direct the state’s pandemic response, according to the Governor’s Office.
“I’m thrilled to welcome Dr. Collins to our team,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “New Mexico has never needed experienced and compassionate public health leadership more than right now. Dr. Collins will hit the ground running as part of our state’s COVID-19 response effort with the Department of Health and indeed all of state government.”
Prior to her appointment, Collins worked in clinical care and oversaw medical research. She also served as chairwoman of the University of Kansas’ Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, and she led primary care research at the University of Minnesota.
Collins earned a master’s degree in public health from the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, where she was also a clinical instructor. She received her medical degree from the University of Oklahoma.
Collins will replace former Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel, who retired in September.
Dr. David Scrase, Lujan Grisham’s human services secretary, also has helped direct the state’s COVID-19 response.
According to Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, Scrase will continue to play a key role in the state’s pandemic response. Since Kunkel’s departure, Scrase has been the Lujan Grisham administration’s public face of the battle with COVID-19.
“Dr. Collins’ appointment will bring a fresh perspective and bolster the state’s COVID-19 response, adding an additional resource for the administration and for the people of New Mexico,” Sackett said in an email.
During a news conference Wednesday, Collins said her first priority upon assuming her new role Dec. 14 will be ensuring the Health Department continues to hammer in the importance of staying home, wearing masks and washing hands as the state reels from a severe and ongoing spike in coronavirus cases.
The state announced a record 1,500 cases Wednesday. Daily counts have surged past 1,000 on eight of the first 11 days in November and have continued to soar to new highs.
Collins said the administration will be evaluating data in the coming weeks to determine whether any new restrictions or other public health measures are needed to stem the rise of coronavirus cases. Preparing to roll out a vaccine for the virus will be a key mission in the coming months, she added.
Collins emphasized individual responsibility when it comes to controlling virus case counts. But she said President Donald Trump’s administration has left states in competition with one another for resources in the absence of a unified federal response.
“We’ve had to fend for ourselves,” Collins said. “I think the Biden-Harris administration will provide more opportunities. And yes, we are well into this pandemic, but we can’t let up now. There’s still more work to be done, and having a chance to work more closely with a supportive administration will be valuable to our state.
“It certainly would have been a lot easier had we had more support, but it’s not insurmountable,” she added. “It does make it challenging, but I am hopeful with the Biden-Harris administration that we will see a change and that things will get better.”