Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called the current COVID-19 explosion the most dire crisis New Mexico has ever seen, yet she stopped short of taking further actions to restrict the economy as she did earlier this year when the state had far fewer cases.
New Mexico reported 672 new cases Thursday, the second-straight day of record-breaking data. The state’s key COVID-19 numbers — including the average case rate and hospitalizations — also have doubled or more in the past three weeks.
“This is the most serious emergency that New Mexico has ever faced,” Lujan Grisham said in her weekly news conference broadcast on Facebook. “The health risks are extreme.”
The unsettling comments came as Lujan Grisham was set to alter her administration’s public health restrictions Friday, adding new rules aimed at curbing a recent dramatic spike in coronavirus numbers.
The Governor’s Office earlier this week announced the new restrictions beginning Friday. They include reducing maximum hotel occupancy rates, lowering the allowable size of mass gatherings, and forcing food and drink establishments serving alcohol to close at 10 p.m. every night.
The state also will require people arriving from “higher-risk states” to self-quarantine for a period of no less than 14 days, or for the duration of their stay in New Mexico.
The existing public health order, due to expire Friday, also will be extended.
But the governor did not put into place tougher mandates.
Though she said recent case numbers would “warrant” even stricter restrictions, Lujan Grisham said it was too soon to return to the full-scale shutdowns that New Mexico saw earlier in the pandemic, such as prohibiting indoor dining and retail activities.
She said she hoped the state could be successful at managing COVID-19 without resorting to more severe measures that would deal an even harsher blow to the economy.
“If we do everything we’re asking you to do — the new public health order tomorrow [Friday] and going back to the basics — the numbers will gradually come down,” she said.
Still, New Mexico’s nationally praised success at fighting the virus has deteriorated in recent weeks, with the seven-day rolling average of new cases spiking to 404 as of Oct. 9 — well above the state’s target of 168 and double where it was late last month.
The test positivity rate, which measures how many people who are tested for COVID-19 turn out to have the disease, has risen to 5.2 percent. The statistic was 3.4 percent at the beginning of the month and is above the state’s target of 5 percent.
“New Mexico’s been leading the Southwest in low positivity rates, controllable transmission of COVID-19,” the governor said. “And now we’re in those columns where we’re leading the country — if not in the No. 1 position, nearing it — for uncontrollable spread.”
The state’s COVID-19 transmission rate is now 1.25, higher than the target of 1.05. A rate below 1 would mean the virus is in decline rather than spreading.
“We are moving so rapidly in the wrong direction,” Lujan Grisham said.
Meanwhile, the number of occupied intensive care beds in the state increased from 226 on Oct. 4 to 290 on Oct 12, while the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in New Mexico has risen 74 percent so far this month, to 150.
Two of the three major Albuquerque hospitals are above 100 percent of their ICU capacity, Human Services Department Secretary David Scrase said Thursday.
“Remember when we used to talk about alternative care sites and field hospitals?” Scrase said. “We still have that equipment. We’re still thinking about how to best use it.”
Scrase added he was concerned about case numbers rising across all age groups, noting he was “really worried” about increases among people over the age of 65.
“This is the slide that now is keeping me awake every night,” Scrase said, displaying showing a graph of case numbers by age groups.
Scrase pushed back at the notion that the spike in new cases was due to increased testing levels in New Mexico. The state has now performed more than 1 million tests, and it was carrying out more than 7,600 per day as of Oct. 13.
“This is not about more testing,” he said. “This is about the rapid spread of the disease.”
The spread of the virus at New Mexico businesses is also accelerating.
Last week, the state had 611 rapid responses, led by the health care and retail industries. That figure was up from 419 the prior week and a 60 percent increase since the end of September.
A rapid response occurs when state agencies 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 said the state might not have the “bandwidth” to keep responding at the same rate to positive tests at businesses given the “exponential increase” in cases.
“Businesses will have to stay closed longer until we can get to you,” she said. “And this is also incredibly problematic for our economic recovery.”
In March, New Mexico was one of the first states in the nation to put a stay-at-home order in place that closed all nonessential businesses and instructed people to remain in their homes. In late May, as virus trends improved, the governor announced the partial reopening of restaurants, salons, gyms and other businesses for June 1.
The pandemic and its corresponding shutdowns led to a precipitous economic downturn. The state lost over 100,000 jobs in April alone, and only one-third of them had been recovered as of August, according to the Legislative Finance Committee.
While tax revenue has dropped less than originally expected, industries such as leisure and hospitality have been hit hard.
As in recent weeks, the governor repeated state residents haven’t been doing enough to slow the spread of the disease as people become exhausted by a pandemic that has now worn on for seven months. She exhorted people to “just do better.”
“You know, we let up,” the governor said. “We succumbed to the national rhetoric that it’s not as bad of a problem.”
At the virtual news conference, Lujan Grisham and Scrase showed a photo of a packed local bar with people flouting social-distancing guidelines.
“This notion that we’re all invincible is wrong,” the governor said.
Neighboring states continue to pose a problem as well, as the Texas border city of El Paso reported more than 700 in one day, Lujan Grisham said.
“Please do not go to El Paso,” the governor urged.
Lujan Grisham warned earlier this week she could reinstate more stringent restrictions on businesses “in the near future” if case numbers do not improve. That would include further restricting indoor dining service and rolling back occupancy limits at retail and dining establishments, her office said.
She again stressed Thursday those types of restrictions could return soon if Friday’s new restrictions fail to rein in the spread.
“If we don’t lower the numbers, none of that would be enough,” she said.