New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Tuesday daily COVID-19 cases in New Mexico continue to rise as other markers signifying the virus’s toll on the mental and economic health of the state also worsen.
In an online update Tuesday, Scrase said the rise in cases could most likely be attributed to Labor Day festivities and trade with bordering Texas. The 14-day trend of daily virus counts has now put New Mexico back in the red category, behind neighboring Arizona and West Coast states like Oregon and Washington, which are now yellow.
“That really is a challenge for me to accept that,” Scrase said.
New Mexico now has a 3 percent positivity rate, meaning 3 percent of all COVID-19 tests are coming back positive.
In addition to Labor Day get-togethers likely playing a role in the recent case increase, Scrase said commerce between Texas and New Mexico, especially near El Paso, is fueling the spread of the virus in Southern and southeast New Mexico.
The most significant jumps in COVID-19 cases have been in Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Doña Ana counties.
Last week, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pointed out rapid responses to workplace infections among employees had risen by 100 compared to the previous week. Health officials said then Labor Day celebrations and eased public health restrictions likely contributed to an associated rise in the state’s virus transmission rate — a key measure used by state officials to show how well the state is doing at containing the spread of the virus.
Early in the pandemic, McKinley and San Juan counties were the state’s virus hot spots. During the spring, strained hospitals in the rural northwest region of the state transferred more patients out of the area for medical care than any other part of New Mexico, an analysis by The New Mexican found.
Now, trade in the El Paso region is fueling case increases in recent weeks. Luna and Catron counties in southwest New Mexico also are seeing increased case levels.
State officials said that in addition to the health effects of the virus, the pandemic also is fueling a mental health crisis in New Mexico along with a rising number of people enrolling in the state’s Medicaid program for health coverage.
According to a presentation by Neal Bowen, the state’s behavioral health services director, 40 percent of U.S. adults have reported struggling with mental health issues or difficulties controlling their use of drugs and alcohol.
Bowen called that increase “astronomical.”
He said the virus and its economic impacts are fueling upticks in suicides and suicidal thoughts — particularly in rural Catron, Grant, Hidalgo, Sierra, Quay, Colfax and Taos counties.
In New Mexico, mental health providers have tracked a 44 percent decline in outpatient metal health services, Bowen said.
There’s been a subsequent increase in the number of people seeking care through telehealth services, but that boost has still not brought the state back to the level of care that had been sought before the pandemic.
That’s particularly concerning, Bowen said, because data shows that more people are struggling with anxiety, depression, stress and substance abuse during the ongoing health crisis.
Bowen said that although opioid abuse appears to have declined during the pandemic, addiction to opioids has been shown to have a troubling link to the severity of COVID-19. Meanwhile, state officials also are seeing a rise in the number of people using methamphetamine, Bowen said.