New Mexico’s coronavirus case counts have exploded in recent weeks because of the ultra-contagious omicron variant, but the state’s top health official says there’s a ray of hope amid the bleak short-term forecasts.

Surging daily case numbers are expected within four weeks to surpass the daily record high set in November 2020, before the vaccine rollouts, as omicron quickly becomes the dominant strain.

“Omicron is here; it’s serious,” acting state Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during an online update Wednesday. “In another week or two, it will be 100 percent of the new cases in our state.”

But Scrase presented a graphic showing recent U.S. trends illustrating that while cases counts have soared to 150 percent of last winter’s peak, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are hanging well below their levels a year ago. In fact, the nation’s death rate is less than half of what it saw at this time last year.

These trends have prompted some health experts to recommend using hospitalizations and deaths as the metric to gauge the severity of the omicron-driven outbreak, as increasing evidence shows omicron causes milder symptoms than previous strains do, especially in the vaccinated.

New Mexico appears to reflect the national picture. Case counts are flirting with previous highs, but hospitalizations have fallen to fewer than 500 COVID-19 patients statewide after spiking to nearly 700 in early December. On Wednesday, the state recorded 2,514 new cases and 36 additional deaths. The seven-day positivity rate reached 20.6 percent, meaning the virus was detected in 1 in 5 tested.

Scrase said he wants at least two more weeks of data before making any forecasts, but he sees positive signs pointing to a possible omicron peak and subsequent taper.

“I like to see six weeks of data after the peak before declaring victory,” Scrase said. “But I think we have reason to be cautiously optimistic.”

Still, the recent decrease in hospitalizations is nothing to cheer, he said, because emergency rooms are still strained with few available beds overall.

Many patients with serious medical problems still face delays in care, and hospitals are running into problems transferring patients with urgent needs to other hospitals, he said.

Staffing shortages continue to plague nearly all of the state’s hospitals, making it even more challenging to handle the crowding, Scrase said.

The area’s urgent care clinics are among the medical facilities feeling the staffing crunch.

Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center has cut back hours on some days at its Entrada Contenta Urgent Care Center amid short staffing.

“Like all hospitals across the country, Christus St. Vincent is dealing with staffing issues that are related to challenges in hiring as well as illness and absences from work,” hospital spokesman Arturo Delgado wrote in an email. “As a result, there have been days when we have closed early due to staffing issues. When this happens, we always alert patients to manage expectations.”

A nurse practitioner will help serve patients at the clinic to ensure two medical providers are there each weekday, Delgado added.

Aspen Medical Center Urgent Care in Santa Fe has had some difficulty hiring support personnel, such as receptionists and medical assistants, but no problems yet finding caregivers, said clinic operations director Joanna Anaya.

Some job candidates opt out at the last minute because they fear working around infected people, and others want to be paid higher than the norm for area clinics, even if they have no experience working in a medical setting, Anaya said.

The staffing challenges came about during the pandemic, she said.

“I’ve been a clinic director since 2013, and I’ve never ran into what I’m running into now,” Anaya said.

Meanwhile, the state intends to adopt the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines that reduce the amount of time an infected person should remain in isolation.

The new recommendation says those who catch the virus can end isolation in five days instead of 10 if they have no symptoms and wear a mask for an additional five days.

Dr. Laura Parajon, state deputy health secretary, said research indicates people with the coronavirus are most infectious in the two days before and three days after symptoms develop.

Parajon said early detection of the virus is important so people know to isolate themselves and curb spread. Home tests are becoming more available, and consumers shouldn’t feel compelled to buy the most expensive versions, she said, adding that lower-priced ones work just fine.

If a rapid test comes up positive, you can trust it, she said. If it’s negative and you’re not sure of the result, wait a couple of days and take another test, she said.

And with omicron spreading 10 times faster than the original virus of two years ago, it’s important to wear a well-fitting, effective mask while in public indoor places, Parajon said. That might be an N95 or multilayer mask with a strip that goes across the bridge of the nose, she said.

Scrase said the hope is that omicron causes milder illnesses than the delta variant as it runs it course, and that subsequent variants are even less lethal until the virus becomes flu-like, requiring a shot or two every year.

“That’s kind of the little ray of hope that I’m looking at with my magnifying glass,” Scrase said.

(11) comments

Al Chavez

Is there an explanation for why the NM DOH reported that the number of vaccinations administered went down from 1,427,952 on December 30 to 1,226,353 on the most recent report of January 4?

Scott Smith

Despite what the article says, good luck finding an at home rapid test. I got lucky and found one right after Christmas and was able to obtain peace of mind for a cost. I have tried since to find a backup for the house at various pharmacies throughout Santa Fe to no avail. Testing should be readily available as it was when the original alpha variant was around. At that time there were eventually plenty of places to obtain a drive through test paid by insurance that had results within 24-36 hours.

Chris Mechels

The guidance for masks on the NM DOH website is STILL at problem; guidance for masks STILL mandates against using KN95 masks, to save them for health care providers. Meanwhile our little Governor very clearly wears a N95 from 3M, while still allowing for "face coverings". No wonder people have their own opinions. The "guidance" is confusing and political.

Cris Moore

Why does this article not tell us what fraction of hospitalized Covid patients are unvaccinated? Is the state not providing the information, or are you not requesting it?

Nancy Lockland

Because if you're vaccinated you won't catch the virus right? [huh]

Scott Smith

Nancy, we all get your sarcasm. If you've been paying attention which I'm guessing you have, you know that the vaccine is not a guarantee against the illness but generally makes it much milder and requires very few hospitalizations compared to the unvaccinated.

James Patrick

Then it's not a vaccine.

Michael Kiley

Dr. Scrase has taken the lead by recommending voluntary vax certificate checks at indoor facilities like restaurants, and I strongly support him and urge the Governor to issue a mandate for the Rio Grande valley, Las Cruces and Farmington. Omicron is more contagious than Covid initially and Delta variant, and I fear it may be the Trojan horse that spreads the virus while showing low morbidity. We need to take action, and vax certificates are a moderate step before business closures. We just vacationed in San Francisco in the Union Square night life district. Business is racing. I STRONGLY urge Gov. Lujan to copy their rule: for every business patron entering an indoor business, including restaurants, requires and notices it at the entrance, you must show your vax certificate. We saw people without it turned away, New Mexico has climbed two levels toward the highest new infection category on the NYT daily US map (front page and online). What we are doing is not working. Rates here are doubling owing to vax deniers. New Mexico should ORDER VAX CERTIFICATE DISPLAY for all indoor businesses. And that will catch the vaccination deadbeats' attention, which will help stem new infections and deaths. No, it's not illegal to copy California! L.A. and New York have now copied San Francisco. As have the Roundhouse and the Pit. Michael M. Kiley, Ph.D., M.P.H., former Practice Manager, Minimally Invasive Diagnostic Center, National Jewish Health respiratory medicine center, Denver.

dawn glankoff

I strongly agree with Mr. Kiley. Also would like airlines to mandate proof of vaccination. It’s the only way to get this pandemic under control.

Emily Koyama

You know Michael and Dawn, if you REALLY want to stay safe, just stay home.... you will not get the virus... as long as you have no visitors ......ever.

John Cook

It would make a lot more sense to give the unvaccinated the freedom to stay at home. Compulsorily.

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