If one of your upcoming holiday wishes is to live in a world without the coronavirus or masks, you may be disappointed.
At least for the foreseeable future.
“This is going to stretch out much further in front of us than we thought,” said Dr. David Scrase, Cabinet secretary of the state’s Human Services Department and acting secretary of the Department of Health.
In an online update on the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, Scrase said he expects “a series of punches and counterpunches between the virus and the rest of the world trying to get this under control.”
The most recent state health mandates are scheduled to end Oct. 15. Scrase said he did not foresee the state adding additional mandates beyond those already in place — the wearing of masks indoors being the most visible — at this time. But he added some of the COVID-19 limitations people have reluctantly accepted as part of daily life could last years.
“We need to think of longer-term solutions to manage this pandemic — things we can live with for one or two or three years rather than clicking on and off mandates,” he said.
Wearing masks indoors for another year or two could be one of those preventive measures we must tolerate, he said.
COVID-19 continues to dig in. The state reported 838 new virus cases Wednesday, for a total of 256,947 statewide. And 10 more people died from COVID-19, bringing the total death count to 4,840.
Though those figures are not as high as when the pandemic was at its peak, Scrase reiterated his concern about what toll the crisis is taking on the state’s health care workers.
He again pointed to a limited number of intensive care unit beds — 17 — and a dwindling number of nurses.
He added there are more “sick people” in the hospital, though not all of them are there because of the coronavirus. People looking for help dealing with other health issues are now vying for limited beds with coronavirus patients, he said.
As a result, “Our hospital personnel are incredibly exhausted, discouraged and frustrated, frankly, that they are now managing a pandemic and working extra shifts and endangering their own health for what has become a preventable illness,” Scrase said.
The glimmer of good news came on the vaccination front. Laura Parajón, deputy secretary for the Department of Health, said more than 80 percent of the state’s residents 18 and over have received at least one dose of the vaccine. More than 71 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. For young people between the ages of 12 and 17, that number is 55 percent.
“The more we vaccinate, the more we keep people from getting sick,” she said. “We’re excited about that.”
Another positive sign: 89 percent of the state’s health care workers have been fully vaccinated, while another 3 percent have received partial vaccinations.
Seven percent of that workforce has been approved for vaccination exemptions, while just 1 percent remains unvaccinated.
Scrase said that data comes from all but five of the state’s roughly 50 hospitals. The five hospitals that did not report updated numbers may receive fines for not complying with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s August executive order mandating vaccinations for health care workers, Scrase said.
Scrase said the Department of Health plans to “circle back” with those five hospitals, which he declined to name until his department has reached out to them, to see if they can get that data before the fines begin.
A first noncompliance fine is $1,000, he said. A second costs $2,000 and a third costs $5,000.
Meanwhile, Ricky Serna, acting secretary of the state Department of Workforce Solutions, said during the presentation the job outlook for residents is good, with more than 80,000 job vacancies in various fields statewide.
The field with the most vacancies is health care, with over 13,100 openings, he said. Hotels and restaurants also are hurting for workers, he said.
He said his agency is working with other state departments and employers to create strategies for drawing employees back. He said Workforce Solutions is still trying to figure out why so many workers are not returning to jobs they previously held. Some may have chosen different career tracks, while some may be tempted to take out-of-state jobs that do not require them to move because they can work online from home.
The number of New Mexicans filing for unemployment claims has dropped from about 50,000 in early September — when most extended federal unemployment benefits came to an end — to just over 18,000 this week, Serna said.
Serna said the pandemic “is going to change the way the workforce operates for a very long time.”
Scrase said New Mexicans have to brace for a continued battle. Recalling his predication in the spring of 2020 that the virus would be gone by the autumn of 2021, he said that “means you can’t predict it.”