University of New Mexico Pathology Intern Michael Franklin administers a dose of the COVID-19 immunization to Marshall Dubois during the first official day of mass vaccinations at The Pit in southeast Albuquerque. Adolphe Pierre-Louis photo.

Still using the phrase, “light at the end of the tunnel,” a quartet of health care experts reported Tuesday that COVID-19 hospitalizations are going down.
Despite that good news, state hospitals are still running at more than 100 percent of their licensed rates, mainly due to what one doctor termed as “respiratory season” this time of year. That means cardiovascular illnesses and even flu cases are up now, albeit with the numbers of flu cases lower than previous years because of precautions being taken to avoid spreading COVID-19.
During December, there were at least 1,000 new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico on 27 days. This month through Monday, five days had fewer than 1,000 cases.
COVID hospitalizations were also decreasing, from the 700s through most of January’s first 13 days to 691 or fewer after the 14th day.
December hospitalizations of COVID patients ranged from a low of 749 on the 26th to 947 on Dec. 3.
Lovelace Health System Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval said she has been working with the City of Albuquerque to find more mass-vaccination sites, such as The Pit, which opened for that task Tuesday.
Presbyterian Healthcare Services Chief Patient Safety Officer Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman agreed, citing the need for a “high-capacity site.”
Then on Thursday morning, Dr. Jason Mitchell, Chief Medical and Clinical Transformation Officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said on KKOB-AM, “We’re in the process of setting up a mass-vaccination site, and that’ll come online in the next few weeks, where we can move large numbers of people through every day. We’ll actually have two sister sites that will be doing that. … As soon as we’re really close to opening, we’ll announce the location.”
As the state moved from the 1A tier to 1B of Phase 1 for vaccinations, no one was certain how the daily doses could be estimated because, as UNM Hospital Chief Quality and Safety Officer Dr. Rohini McKee put it, “We don’t know how much vaccine we will be receiving.”
Once 70 percent of all people are vaccinated, Mitchell said, “herd immunity” could be attained.
Doctors agreed the Pfizer vaccine is effective against two new variants of COVID, including the British variant B117.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, these variants seem to spread more easily and quickly than other variants, which may lead to more cases of COVID-19. There is no evidence these variants cause more severe illness or increased risk of death.
But an increase in the number of cases will put more strain on health care resources.
“If you practice COVID-safe practices,” Mitchell said, “the variant isn’t going to affect you. … The vaccine works. Even if the vaccine was slightly less effective against the variant, which there’s no proof that there is, the vaccine is so effective that a small degradation would not make any difference in herd immunity.”
The various vaccines used in America thus far, he added, are “95 percent effective, which is fabulous. But there’s still 5 percent of the people who could be vulnerable, and we want to protect those people till we have herd immunity.”
Still key to battling the pandemic and maintaining a lower rate of transmittal, are masking, social distancing and getting vaccinated.
“Those behaviors are so critically important,” McKee said.

2 senior care facilities in RR hit hard
While the fewest new cases of COVID-19 in the New Year, 628, were recorded Jan. 18, 26 people died of the disease that day, with four from Sandoval County, after zero deaths in four of the previous five days, according to state information.
Three of the county deaths were at The Retreat Healthcare facility in Rio Rancho: a woman in her 70s and a man and a woman, both in their 90s, all having underlying conditions, according to the state. The other county resident was a woman in her 70s who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions.
One day later, a man in his 90s with underlying conditions and residing at The Retreat succumbed to COVID-19.
On Jan. 20, the state reported, three more elderly folks died: a female in her 80s and a man in his 90s, both with underlying conditions and residents of Genesis Rio Rancho Center, and a man in his 80s who was a resident of the Avamere facility in Rio Rancho.
On Jan. 21, there were three county fatalities, among them a man in his 60s with underlying conditions living at The Retreat Healthcare facility, according to the state.

Gary Herron | Observer staff writer