State health officials foresee coronavirus cases falling sharply in the coming weeks, quelling the bleak surge mostly among New Mexico’s unvaccinated residents that had slowed progress in ending an 18-month pandemic.
The state’s overall high vaccination rate is paying off, though New Mexicans can expect to see packed hospitals for another week and an elevated death toll for another month before a marked drop-off, the state’s health chief said Wednesday.
Everyone at the state Department of Health is willing to say New Mexico is “on the downslope of this pandemic,” said Dr. David Scrase, human services secretary and acting health secretary, in a virtual news conference.
“We predicted it about three weeks ago. We leveled off about two weeks ago, and now we’re finally heading into the downward trend,” Scrase said.
As of Wednesday, 79 percent of residents 18 and older have received at least one dose, and 69 percent have completed their series of shots, according to the state’s vaccine dashboard.
But that doesn’t mean people should discard their face coverings, Scrase said.
Until caseloads drop and stay down, the state will keep the indoor mask mandate, he said, referring to the rule the governor imposed last month and extended Wednesday to Oct. 15.
Scrase pointed to a state map with all but two counties awash in red, the color code denoting a high transmission rate based on positive tests and cases per 100,000 people.
The transmission rate would have to drop to yellow, a moderate level, before health officials would consider easing mask requirements, Scrase said.
Vaccines, masks and social distancing are an effective combination in reducing spread, he said, adding the state wants to use all available tools to combat the more infectious delta variant.
The expected downturn in the outbreak is good news for schools, which will continue with in-person classroom learning with no change anticipated, state Public Education Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus said.
“We are in a full-court press to keep in-person learning going and to keep schools safe,” Steinhaus said. “And so we have not had a lot of discussion about any statewide transition to remote. We hope we don’t have to do that. In-person learning just works better.”
To avoid spread within schools, staff must either be vaccinated or take weekly tests. A $63 million federal grant is also helping schools boost their testing.
Data shows infections among school personnel and students statewide fell by 37 percent last week from the previous week. Steinhaus said they will study that dramatic decrease closer to ensure it’s a trend and not a blip.
Scrase said there’s talk of the Pfizer vaccine possibly being approved for children ages 5 to 11 by November, but that still is not certain.
A sizable portion of unvaccinated residents live in impoverished or remote areas, known as socially vulnerable communities because of the increased challenges residents face in obtaining adequate medical care, said Laura Parajon, a Health Department deputy secretary.
These residents can lack transportation and access to medical personnel and facilities, which often aren’t available in poorer areas, Parajon said.
Scrase displayed a graph, based on census data, showing communities with 40 percent of residents living below the poverty line had twice the COVID-19 infections of those with 5 percent of residents living in poverty.
Ethnic populations, especially Hispanic and Black communities, have more unvaccinated people and in turn more cases, Parajon said. Their vaccine refusal often stems from historic distrust of government health agencies, she added.
The state is making an effort to overcome the socioeconomic and ethnic barriers to get as many people inoculated as possible, she said.
Scrase noted two California counties have declared misinformation about vaccines and COVID-19 precautions a public health crisis. He said he agreed with them.
The delta variant remains the dominant strain in New Mexico, accounting for nearly all current cases, Scrase said, adding those who aren’t immunized are four times more likely to be infected and 7.5 times more apt to be hospitalized with serious symptoms.
And counties with higher vaccination rates have far less spread, he said, displaying a graphic illustrating counties’ outbreaks versus inoculations.
“The more people you can get vaccinated in a community, there’s a dramatically lower number of cases that correlate with that,” he said.