The news doesn’t get any better than this: New Mexico recorded zero COVID-related deaths on March 21, the first time the state has done that since October.
And, according to four medical experts representing as many hospital groups in the state, the numbers keep getting better — with the month of March recording 18 or fewer COVID-related deaths through its first 25 days, and 15 single-digit fatality days in that stretch.
There are also far fewer people hospitalized with COVID symptoms — fewer than 200 every day of the month after an average of more than 328 a day in February, 650 per day in January, and 749-947 in December.
On March 22:
• Presbyterian’s 10 facilities across the state had 31 COVID patients hospitalized, with five on ventilators;
• Lovelace reported a daily average of six to eight COVID patients;
• University of New Mexico Hospital and UNM Sandoval Regional Medical Center had fewer than 20 between them; and
• CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center had six, with none on ventilators.
But, with another tier of people eligible to be vaccinated, Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval said, “Supply has been a challenge.”
Experts agreed social-distancing, mask-wearing and other COVID-safe practices are encouraged following vaccination.
“(This is) definitely not the time to back off,” cautioned Presbyterian Healthcare Services Medical Director Dr. Denise Gonzales.
Benefits of wearing a mask “go well beyond COVID,” Gonzales added, noting the miniscule number of flu cases this winter. “It works for all viruses.”
Sixty-eight COVID variants have been identified as being in the state as of January, but none identified as “high consequence,” and none of the Brazil or South Africa variants, noted state Scientific Laboratory Director Mike Edwards in a Human Services Department webinar March 24.
The experts said if cases surge after spring break and Easter, their facilities will be prepared.
“We may be wearing masks for a long time,” said Human Services Department Secretary Dr. David Scrase in the HSD webinar.

Sandoval County remains ‘yellow’
The New Mexico Department of Health on Wednesday announced the updated statewide COVID-19 map for the two-week period beginning March 24, with 13 New Mexico counties at the Turquoise Level and 10 at the Green Level, at which there are fewer restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities amid decreased virus risk.
Ten counties, including Sandoval and Bernalillo, are at the Yellow Level. None is at the Red Level, signifying the highest risk.
And 17 counties advanced to a less-restrictive level since the most recent biweekly map update.
Counties that met both of the health metric thresholds for two consecutive biweekly map updates and may now operate at the Turquoise Level are Catron, De Baca, Hidalgo, Lea, Los Alamos, McKinley, Quay, Roosevelt, San Juan, Santa Fe, Sierra, Socorro and Union.
Green level counties now are Chaves, Colfax, Curry, Eddy, Guadalupe, Lincoln, Mora, Rio Arriba, Taos and Torrance.

State vaccinations by the numbers
The HSD webinar, taking pride in the fact that New Mexico still leads the U.S. in getting shots into arms, provided the following:
• 38.8 percent of New Mexicans ages 16 and older have had at least their first shot, and 24.2 percent are fully vaccinated;
• Of 62,032 educators registered to be vaccinated, 51,405 (82.8 percent) have had at least their first shot and 32.1 percent are fully vaccinated; and
• 116,280 doses are expected to be distributed in the state this week, which includes 12,100 Johnson & Johnson one-shot doses, amounting to close to 20,000 more doses than received in the past week.

Another vaccine on the way
President Biden’s goal of having every adult vaccinated by the end of May took another step forward last week when AstraZeneca said its vaccine was 79 percent effective at preventing any COVID-19 symptoms and 100 percent effective at preventing severe ones, with no safety issues with blood clots, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Results from more than 32,000 tests in the U.S. showed the vaccine 80 percent effective for people ages 65 and over.
Trial results were expected to pave the way for emergency-use authorization in the U.S.; it is already being used in other countries.
Like the Moderna vaccine, a second dose is required after four weeks.

This chart shows the COVID numbers and color designations for the next two weeks. Courtesy of the State of New Mexico.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer