Even amid the pandemic, Santa Fe County remains a destination for out-of-state visitors, which is contributing to a higher rate of daily novel coronavirus cases here than in other counties in the region, state health officials said Thursday.
In the past week, Santa Fe County’s daily cases per 100,000 residents outpaced those in Bernalillo, San Juan, Sandoval and Valencia counties, according to the New York Times tracker for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Santa Fe is a regional center, so we attract people from the surrounding areas,” said Dr. Chad Smelser, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health, in a virtual news conference. “The other thing is it’s a tourist destination, and so we do have a significant amount of tourists coming in, which also could influence our rates.”
Santa Fe’s count of positive tests — including 14 reported Thursday — is out of step with the state’s, which has dipped in recent weeks.
New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase said statewide trends are encouraging.
The transmission rate has fallen to 0.70 — well below New Mexico’s target of 1.05. Anything below 1 means the caseload will drop because not every infected person is spreading the virus to someone else.
Weekly deaths, which spiked to 45 in late July, dropped to 23 in mid-August.
Hospitalizations also are declining, with 248 intensive-care beds filled, health officials said. That’s 18 above the normal 240-bed average but way below the 460-bed ceiling that would require patients to share ventilators.
Still, the persistent rise in Santa Fe County’s caseload remains a concern.
Contact tracing shows the county’s caseload, a total of 736, has resulted from people not taking precautions such as wearing masks, washing hands adequately and keeping safe distances from one another, said David Morgan, a spokesman for the Department of Health.
The northeast region of New Mexico, which includes Santa Fe, had the lowest rate of daily cases in the state in early August, at 4.6 per 100,000 residents, according to state health data.
But the latest New York Times data shows Santa Fe’s average daily rate was 6 per 100,000 in the past week, compared to:
- Bernalillo, 4
- Rio Arriba, 5.6
- Valencia, 5
- Sandoval, 2.5
All areas of the state except for the southeastern region are improving since the surge in June and July that led the governor to reinstate some COVID-19 restrictions, such as a ban on indoor dining.
In the southeast, new cases jumped by 19.3 percent in a seven-day period, a trend Smelser attributed partly to the area’s proximity to Texas, one of the nation’s hot spots.
But Smelser warned that could change in the fall, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicts what could be the worst period for public health in the nation since the pandemic began.
Scrase said he hopes a big autumn wave doesn’t hit New Mexico. Another forced closure would strain businesses and other institutions, and a spike in cases would further complicate reopening schools, he said.
Schools across the state are now operating remotely, with teachers and students meeting through online platforms. Santa Fe Public Schools began the year with distance learning Thursday and plans to continue on a remote model for at least the first nine weeks.
Albuquerque Public Schools, meanwhile, will operate remotely through the full first semester, following a vote by the school board Wednesday.
One way to help prevent a spike this fall is sticking with the basic precautions, such as wearing masks, avoiding indoor spaces where others are unmasked and avoiding large gatherings, Scrase said, adding moderation is key.
“If we want to reopen a little more, we have to be super diligent,” Scrase said. “Don’t plan the big family barbecue with 30 people on Labor Day.”
Although the state is heading in the right direction when it comes to containing the spread of the virus, people shouldn’t expect loosened restrictions in the next couple of weeks, Scrase said. He cited states like Texas and Arizona as cautionary tales on reopening too swiftly after cases begin to wane.
The virus is still present in the community even if the caseload slows for several weeks, Scrase said.
“We’re looking for a longer period of recovery than that,” he added.