Although intensive care units in New Mexico are filled with COVID-19 patients, the number of hospitalizations during the most recent surge hasn’t been as high as computer modeling had projected, the state’s top health officials said Wednesday.
In fact, New Mexico’s hospitalization rate has held steady and new cases seem to be leveling off.
“There’s something about our response this time … that has created this change in the shape of the curve,” Dr. David Scrase, the state’s human services secretary and acting secretary of the Department of Health, said in a video chat with reporters.
Many in the medical community believe New Mexicans are seeking treatment more quickly once they test positive for the coronavirus, which has helped reduce hospitalizations.
On Tuesday, New Mexico had 18 available ICU beds, and as of Wednesday, hospitals were treating 394 COVID-19 patients, well below the more than 700 hospitalizations the state had projected last week.
“We’re happy to take the cases being lower than we expected,” Scrase said.
For weeks, many feared the state would run out of hospital beds, forcing doctors to ration care.
While the state’s hospital system has reached the crisis standards of care threshold, “We have not issued any kind of official crisis standards of care declaration,” Scrase said.
Though there is a shortage of hospital beds, “We have not had to deny anyone medical treatment,” he said.
Still, he believes hospitalizations will remain high for at least the next two weeks.
The state Department of Health reported 543 new cases of the coronavirus Wednesday, the state’s lowest daily total in more than a month.
“Although we certainly don’t want to celebrate too early, I do want to say we’re happy to see that there is a deceleration of growth in new cases. And what you can see is the semblance of a possible plateau,” said Dr. Christine Ross, state epidemiologist, who also participated in Wednesday’s video chat.
Yet she pointed out Monday was Labor Day, and case counts usually rise in the weeks following a holiday because people tend to gather with friends and family to celebrate.
“We could see an increase in our case counts in the next week or so,” Ross said. “We’re going to continue to watch this very, very closely. But we’re very hopeful that this plateau will turn into a decreasing trend of new cases.”
For the first time since the delta variant erupted over the summer, the state’s spread rate is 1. A rate above 1 means the virus is spreading exponentially. When the rate is less than 1, the virus is in decline.
“Again, this is a move in the right direction. We hope to see this drop below 1,” Ross said.
She credited the lower spread rate to the state getting the word out about the infectious nature of the delta variant and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s decision to reimplement an indoor mask mandate: “All of these things together appear to have made a positive impact.”
While the number of new infections appears to be letting up, deaths related to COVID-19 are rising. The state reported 15 additional deaths Wednesday, including a Santa Fe County man in his 60s, a Los Alamos County woman in her 40s and a San Miguel County man in his 70s. A few weeks ago, the state averaged two or three fatalities a day.
The state also is seeing an increase in infections among children 5 to 17 years old. Pediatric cases have accounted for nearly 16 percent of New Mexico’s cases since the pandemic began. In the past week, the 5 to 17 age group has accounted for 24 percent of new cases.
“One thing that really sticks out is vaccination coverage,” Ross said.
The vaccination rate among children is much lower than other age groups because anyone younger than 12 isn’t eligible to get vaccinated.
“This is why we are anxiously awaiting approval, FDA approval, for these younger age groups,” Ross said, “so we can help temper the number of infections that we’re seeing right now.”