The number of COVID-19 cases confirmed in New Mexico skyrocketed Friday to 191, as officials ordered schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year and said passengers flying into the state must self-isolate for two weeks.
The state Department of Health reported 55 new cases of the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory infection — a 40 percent increase from the count a day earlier — including 27 in Bernalillo County and seven in Santa Fe County. The Santa Fe area now has 29 confirmed cases. Seventeen of the people who have tested positive in the state have been hospitalized as of Friday, with six of them in critical care or on ventilators. There has been one virus-related death.
The surge was more than double any prior single-day increase — the previous high had been 24 new cases Thursday. The total number of confirmed cases roughly doubled from three days prior.
"Having your numbers double in three days is not the best sign we could see," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said late Friday on Facebook Live. "But it’s not as high as some of the epicenters where you’re seeing some of those doubling rates every two days.
"It means there’s more social distancing that must be done," she added.
While the great majority of confirmed cases continue to be travel-related, 20 percent of cases are still under investigation and 15 percent appear to be caused by community spread, the governor said.
"That’s the number that gives us real pause," Lujan Grisham said, referring to community spread.
The governor urged New Mexicans to strictly follow social distancing measures, noting that a person with the virus who is out in public can infect some 400 people in the span of 30 days. If residents transmit the virus at that rate, it could easily overwhelm health care resources, she said.
"I want everyone to remember we’re in this fight together," Lujan Grisham said. "Together, we will persevere. We will all be OK."
Experts said the dramatic increase in cases Friday was expected, given New Mexico saw its first instances of the virus later than other states, and those areas have since seen exponential growth.
"Once you get on this train, it starts to speed up," said Kathryn Hanley, a biology professor at New Mexico State University who specializes in virus evolutionary ecology. "We got on the train much later, so we’re just starting to pick up speed."
The governor issued an executive order Friday that will require passengers flying into the state to self-isolate for 14 days. People who fail to do so will be subject to forced isolation or quarantine by the Health Department.
The order doesn't apply to airline employees and those performing public safety or public health duties, including military personnel, federal employees, national defense contractors, first responders, and employees of shipping and freight companies.
The surge in cases Friday came as some New Mexico residents ran into obstacles and conflicting information when trying to get tested for COVID-19, even as they had clear signs of being at risk.
Kevin Zansler, a 29-year-old resident of Santa Fe, said the state Health Department told him Tuesday he could not get tested even though his fever spiked from 99 degrees to 103.2 degrees in a span of several hours and his roommate had just been confirmed positive after a trip to New York.
“They said 'You’re not eligible yet because you don’t also have a cough,' ” Zansler told The New Mexican.
The person Zansler spoke with at the Health Department, who he believed was a nurse, only suggested he take Tylenol to reduce his fever and put alcohol on the soles of his feet so that heat would dissipate.
Feeling he needed to get another opinion, Zansler then called Presbyterian Healthcare Services, where a nurse had the opposite response and wrote an order for him to get tested. He did that Thursday and was waiting for the results.
“My flu test has already come back negative,” he said. “Pretty much everything is pointing to coronavirus.”
The Governor's Office, which is coordinating the response to the pandemic with the Health Department, said staff have been working nonstop to process test results and to relay accurate information to patients and the general public.
"It is an incomprehensible amount of work," said Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor. "It is my view they have risen to the challenge remarkably every day and continue to do so, and we all owe them an enormous debt.”
Zansler said his roommate who tested positive waited 5½ days to get his results back. During that time, Zansler and other friends were left in limbo, unable to know whether they had indeed come into contact with someone with the virus.
Zansler mostly self-isolated over the five days but did go to the grocery store once, saying the lack of results gave a “false sense of security."
“Had we gotten his results sooner, I definitely would not have made a trip to the grocery store,” he said.
It wasn’t just people trying to get tested who experienced contradictory messages from health officials. People already confirmed to have the virus got them, too.
A 64-year-old Santa Fe woman, whose journey through the testing system was featured in a March 22 story in The New Mexican, was later confirmed positive for COVID-19 after waiting four days for her results.
“We were both so shocked,” she said, referring to herself and her husband. “We couldn’t believe it when the doctor called.”
The woman was still exhibiting symptoms but said she was feeling better, and a state epidemiologist told her she was very likely to recover. Adding to the good news, none of the family members or friends she had recently seen was showing signs of sickness.
Yet the experience could provide a window into a state Health Department that has an inordinate amount of work amid the global health crisis. The woman said the people she spoke with gave unclear advice.
The first two people she talked to — a nurse and a liaison for health care providers — told her to tell everyone she saw before the onset of symptoms that they had to shelter in place for 14 days from the time of contact. That's what she did.
“We let all of our friends know, and it was pretty dire,” the woman said.
Afterward, she said, an epidemiologist at the agency said those precautions weren't necessary because the contact occurred before she became symptomatic.
The Governor's Office said it hadn't heard any reports of people getting inconsistent information from the COVID-19 hotline, but acknowledged it was "possible an individual might have been passed between people with somewhat differing information.”
Stelnicki added the state's guidance has been that individuals who may have had contact with people who test positive "certainly need to stay home and self-isolate.”
The woman received more mixed messages Friday on how long she needed to stay in self-isolation. Some health officials said 14 days while others said she was free to move about sooner, according to the woman.
The woman said the epidemiologist was impressed with how disciplined she and her husband had been while sheltering in place.
Her husband said if they had not been so diligent, the woman easily could have transmitted the virus to others without knowing it.
“There would be a whole other cohort of people who could be exposed,” he said.