State health experts warned during a Wednesday briefing there may be another significant wave of COVID-19 infections on the way to New Mexico.
The state Department of Health reported more than 3,300 new cases over the weekend and another 726 on Tuesday. Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase said there likely are more infections that haven’t been reported because of home testing.
He estimated for every person who gets a PCR test at a testing facility there are three to seven more who have taken an at-home exam and not all results are reported.
Still, even as case numbers rise, Scrase said the department has not had discussions about reintroducing infection-reducing measures that had been part of daily life in New Mexico through many months in the crisis.
“There still is a mandate in place that hasn’t changed for health care settings and congregate living settings, just because those folks obviously are more vulnerable. But I think that in general, that’s not something that’s on the table,” Scrase said.
Department officials said they are shifting focus to treating and preventing severe illness caused by COVID-19 rather than preventing the overall number of infections.
“I think the point of that was, ‘Hey, this isn’t about infections. It’s about serious disease. It’s about hospitalizations. It’s about deaths.’ That’s what we need to pay attention to,” Scrase said.
Though the Health Department said hospitalizations in New Mexico have increased, it noted there have been fewer people in intensive care units and fewer deaths compared to the past two years.
State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross said more recent COVID-19 surges have been far less severe than previous variants.
“We are clearly in a very different pandemic than we have seen previously,” Ross said. “Most of us have are either protected by vaccination or prior natural infection. So this creates this wall of protection for us.”
Officials said one of the reasons they are seeing fewer severe cases is because of the availability of new treatments.
Scrase said Paxlovid has been more effective than monoclonal antibodies at preventing serious illness. He said it reduces the chances of hospitalization by 88 percent. Department officials advised people to seek treatment if they have at least one symptom, an underlying condition and if they test positive for COVID-19 — even if it’s a home test.
Local clinics, including the Railyard Urgent Care Center and La Familia Medical Center, are offering prescriptions of Paxlovid to those who need it.
As Scrase and Ross spoke on the livestreamed briefing, some commenters expressed concern about the lack of availability of Paxlovid in some parts of the state.
In an email, a spokeswoman wrote while New Mexico is on “federal allocation” for the drug, the state has not had to deny replenishment requests for Paxlovid from a COVID-19 provider.
According to a recent study from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly one in five adults may experience post-COVID conditions, also known as “long COVID.”
When asked how the state will prepare for a potential increase in disability claims caused by long COVID-19, Scrase said the state still has time.
“Usually that cycle time for a permanent disability, or disability is a year,” he said. “And we still don’t have an agreed-upon definition of what long COVID is.”
Scrase said he has been talking to the chief of general internal medicine at University of New Mexico School of Medicine about creating more COVID-19 clinics to help people dealing with long COVID, which can cause wide range of problems that include fatigue, shortness of breath, brain fog, chest pain and headaches.
Ross and Scrase said they expect vaccines to evolve as new variants surface. Scrase said there is a chance people soon will be taking seasonal COVID-19 vaccines, similar to the flu shot.
Ross said there has been work to develop a nasal treatments that could be more effective at preventing infection.
The Health Department still recommends getting vaccinated as the best way to prevent getting the virus. Ross said those who are unvaccinated are still five times more likely to be hospitalized by COVID-19.