Dismayed by key indicators that are jackknifing in the wrong direction, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham cautioned New Mexico may be at risk of having to again clamp down on the economy amid a huge rise in coronavirus cases.
The state’s recent spike is the third-highest in the country, with the change in the seven-day average of new cases at more than 100 percent over the past two weeks, officials said.
“We are at extreme risk of uncontrollable spread,” Lujan Grisham said Thursday afternoon during a virtual news conference broadcast on Facebook.
New Mexico had been faring well in its fight against COVID-19, with case averages well below targets from early August through late September. But that picture has changed dramatically over the past two weeks as the virus is now “spreading exponentially,” Lujan Grisham said.
The state recorded its second-highest daily case count ever on Wednesday, at 426, and reported 387 on Thursday. Nearly one-third of the new cases Thursday were in Bernalillo County, which has by far the largest number of total cases. Twenty were in Santa Fe County.
New Mexico’s transmission rate has shot up to 1.24, well above the state’s target of 1.05. A rate below 1 would mean the spread of the virus is in decline.
Meanwhile, the test positivity rate, which measures how many people who are tested for COVID-19 turn out to have the disease, has risen to 4.2 percent from around 2 percent two weeks ago. That rate skyrocketed to 9.7 percent on Wednesday.
The state is targeting a test positivity rate of less than 5 percent.
“These numbers don’t lie,” Lujan Grisham said. “They tell a story.”
The latest chapter could well include even tougher times for businesses and schools in the months ahead, if the state doesn’t see an improvement in the numbers and decides to roll back some of its previous efforts to reopen the economy.
The current public health order, which expires Oct. 16, restricts most businesses to partial capacity.
The governor did not announce any changes to that order on Thursday and said it was “premature” to say which reopenings could be rescinded, though she did say the number of “rapid responses” at businesses such as restaurants and retail shops were on the rise.
A rapid response occurs when state agencies immediately contact employers after one or more of their employees tests positive for COVID-19. In an effort to prevent further spread of the disease, businesses are typically required to temporarily halt operations, test employees, disinfect workplaces and implement COVID-19-safe practices.
Lujan Grisham also said the state was “definitely trending in the wrong direction to go back to in-person learning” at public schools.
Given the gloomy turn in the data, the governor exhorted New Mexicans to practice social distancing and COVID-19-safe measures in order to spur a reduction in the case count that could help the state avoid tightening restrictions.
She said many residents are interacting in public without their masks, attending large gatherings and traveling to too many places every day.
The governor urged New Mexico residents to be vigilant about mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and self-isolation.
“This is the time to exercise as much caution as we possibly can,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said.
Additionally, this year’s Halloween will likely be unlike any other.
The governor cited the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in urging people to avoid “high-risk activities” such as door-to-door trick-or-treating, in-person costume parties and haunted houses.
Instead, New Mexicans should limit themselves to homebound activities such as pumpkin carving and scary movie nights, Lujan Grisham said.
“It isn’t going to be the same,” she said.
The governor likened the current situation to a wildfire that could become uncontrollable and would have an “untenable” impact on businesses if they had to be closed again.
“If the wind is blowing and it’s incredibly dry … very quickly it gets out of control and you can’t contain it,” she said.
Lujan Grisham spoke from the governor’s mansion in Santa Fe, where she has been self-quarantined following a possible exposure to COVID-19 by a custodial worker.
The governor and her fiancé were tested for the disease on Wednesday and the results were negative, but they are continuing to quarantine, she said.
The custodial worker is experiencing “very mild symptoms” and is “doing quite well,” the governor said.
New Mexico is still meeting the majority of its gating criteria — which officials use to make coronavirus-related policy decisions.
It remains in the green in areas such as contact tracing and testing, and only 262 adult ICU beds are occupied — much lower than the target of 439 or less.
Still, the time the state has to get the case count under control is “really narrow,” the governor said.
“We are absolutely trending in the wrong direction,” she said. “It is more than the alarm bells — we’re beyond that.”