As the coronavirus’s more infectious delta variant continues driving up caseloads and hospitalizations throughout New Mexico, increasing numbers of the ill and hospitalized are fully vaccinated people, state health officials said Wednesday.
Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said immunity to the virus begins to wane 5 ½ months after inoculation, which adds to the rise in so-called breakthrough infections. They now make up 28 percent of new COVID-19 cases and 23 percent of hospitalizations.
“Some grim news today — things continue to get worse,” Scrase said at an online news conference.
The state’s seven-day average daily case count Tuesday was 1,245, according to the New York Times, a number last seen in mid-January as a surge that began in October 2020 was on the decline. The seven-day average number of cases Nov. 9, 2020 — before New Mexico began rolling out COVID-19 vaccines — was 1,169, Times data shows. Two weeks later, the surge peaked with a record seven-day average of 2,671.
Though it remains unclear how high daily cases could rise this winter, Wednesday’s count of 1,337 is certain to push the weekly average higher. There were nearly 500 hospitalizations, and the state saw 13 more COVID-19 fatalities.
New cases have been particularly high in three counties — Bernalillo, Doña Ana and San Juan. But nearly all counties in New Mexico are tracking well above the state’s targets for caseloads and the rate of people testing positive.
“We’re swimming in a sea of red,” State Epidemiologist Christine Ross said, referring to New Mexico’s color code for a dangerously high rate of spread.
Cases among children and youth in Santa Fe Public Schools also are on the rise, with the virus infecting dozens in recent weeks and causing outbreaks in two small east-side schools. School and health officials hope a new immunization effort for kids ages 5 to 11 will stem the spread.
While officials at hospitals in Santa Fe said late last week the facilities weren’t yet overtaxed by a heavy load of COVID-19 patients, Scrase said many of the state’s hospitals are running well past capacity and are critically low on beds for emergency care, which means people with serious medical problems might have to be transferred from a strained hospital to one with available space.
“If you have a heart attack today, there might not be a bed for you,” he said.
The state Department of Health issued a public health order in October to allow rationed crisis care at overwhelmed hospitals amid the surge. An estimated 245 state and federal medical personnel have been sent to hospitals that have hit that tipping point, including in San Juan County.
Still, Scrase said there are no plans for the state to reinstate restrictions on business operations and group activities.
“Right now, we don’t have a secret list of things we plan to launch,” he said.
Health officials repeated familiar advice to combat the spread: Follow COVID-19 precautions, including the state’s mask mandate, and get a booster shot.
The main factors causing the surge are the delta variant spreading faster, the vaccine’s efficacy wearing off — especially among those who were first to receive the shots — and people becoming laxer with COVID-19 precautions, Scrase said.
Ross said people are gathering and traveling more, which, combined with the delta variant, is “a perfect storm.”
Scrase encouraged everyone who’s been fully immunized to register for the booster at the state Department of Health’s vaccine website.
He estimated 70 percent of adults in New Mexico are eligible:
- People who are at least 65.
- Adults with medical conditions.
- Those who work with the public, increasing their potential exposure to the virus.
The Department of Health is working with federal officials to allow more people to get the boosters, Scrase added.
A return to business restrictions isn’t completely out of bounds, he said, noting health officials must be open to considering all possible measures, depending on how bad the outbreak becomes.
But Ross said people have grown weary of having their lives crimped and would be less willing to shelter in place and avoid group settings at this point in the pandemic. “Our risk-taking behavior is changing over time because we’re so far into this.”
Right now, 100 percent of coronavirus cases in the state are caused by the delta variant, she said. After the vaccine rollouts, the infection curve bent downward until July, when the variant struck, and has since rebounded.
“This is very, very concerning,” Ross said. “This is certainly not the direction we want to go in.”
The delta variant is two to four times more infectious than the coronavirus of a year ago, Scrase said.
He added: “Just ask yourself … am I being two to four times more careful this year?”