Dr. David Gonzales felt inspired last week when he saw Carlsbad Caverns and White Sands national parks in Southern New Mexico, but one sight brought him down.
Gonzales said he saw fewer than 10 people wearing face masks in those places.
He and numerous others doctors in New Mexico this week warned the delta variant of the coronavirus is spreading fast here and elsewhere. A brief lull in coronavirus case counts is over.
“The numbers continue to increase,” Gonzales, chief medical officer at Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, said this week.
Dr. David Scrase, acting Cabinet secretary of the state Department of Health, said at a news conference Wednesday cases at one point had declined to about 60 a day in New Mexico, but now they average 240 to 260 a day. The official daily count from his department Wednesday was 329 cases.
Although getting a precise percentage is difficult because scientific testing is laborious, Scrase estimated the delta variant makes up 75 percent of cases in New Mexico now. Nationwide, it’s higher.
Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, the Albuquerque-based chief patient safety officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said this week the delta version of the virus is far more transmissible than other variants.
“I think we need to be concerned, particularly among the unvaccinated,” Salvon-Harman said.
The hope for victory over the disease in late spring and early summer has proven short-lived. La Familia Medical Center in Santa Fe canceled a health fair scheduled for Aug. 14 at its clinic on the city’s south side.
“We have been monitoring with concern the daily increase in numbers of individuals affected by the delta variant of COVID among the unvaccinated,” La Familia said in a written statement issued last week. “We have decided to cancel the event out of caution and to prevent community spread.”
Dr. Wendy Johnson, medical director at La Familia, said she will again make a plea for people to get vaccinated. “If you haven’t gotten vaccinated yet, you’re really at high risk right now,” Johnson said.
Dr. Jagdish Khubchandani, a public health professor at New Mexico State University, said he didn’t want to spread fear.
But fall “will be rough for many communities” because of high numbers of unvaccinated people, failure to wear masks, the likely appearance of new COVID-19 variants and the presence of seasonal flu, he said.
“Personally, I am not surprised with this variant and neither do I anticipate that this is the last variant of concern,” Khubchandani wrote in an email.
Scrase said New Mexico residents should follow federal guidelines that have been ratcheted up with the rise of the delta variant. Those include wearing masks in public indoor spots even if one is vaccinated, especially in areas struggling with high transmission. And universal indoor masking is recommended for teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools, regardless of vaccination status.
“I think we’ve gotten a little bit relaxed,” Scrase said. “We warned you not to throw away your masks.”
Dr. Dion Gallant, an Albuquerque family physician and president of the New Mexico Medical Society, said this week the course of the pandemic has been an emotional roller coaster. It’s “heartbreaking to see this happening again,” Gallant said of the recent surge. “This is getting to be scary.”
As long as the coronavirus lingers, Gallant said, the virus has the potential to morph into another variant. Each mutation, he said, is a “wild card.”
He said it’s unfortunate the decision on whether to get vaccinated is tied to politics in many cases.
The Kaiser Family Foundation’s tracking project last month reported 23 percent of Republicans said they definitely wouldn’t get vaccinated, compared to 2 percent of Democrats.
“It’s become a political hot potato when, really, it should be a medical decision,” Gallant said.
Scrase said the delta variant spreads three to five times more effectively than other variants. The vaccines appear to work well against the mutation, he said, and even if a vaccinated person gets the disease, hospitalization is unlikely.
People with coronavirus symptoms, whether unvaccinated or vaccinated, are less inclined now to get tested, he said, another symptom people are letting their guard down against the disease. “This is a big mistake,” he said.