As if the recent staggering surge of COVID-19 cases from the Delta variant hasn’t been enough to worry about, in late November came word of yet another variant, called Omicron.
First identified in South Africa, the first case of the Omicron variant in the U.S. was officially noted in California on Dec. 1.
According to The New York Times, the patient, who returned to the state from South Africa on Nov. 22, is in isolation with aggressive contact tracing underway.
The individual was fully vaccinated, not hospitalized and had mild symptoms that were improving. People in close contact with the individual have tested negative.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom said the patient had received two doses of the Moderna vaccine but was within the six-month window and had thus not received a booster.
On Dec. 2, another case was confirmed, this time in Minnesota, after a man returned from New York, where he attended a convention with 53,000 others. His symptoms were also described as mild; he had also been immunized.
As of Dec. 1, Omicron hasn’t been detected in New Mexico. Doctors say it’s more contagious than the Delta variant.
Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said in a Zoom media availability Tuesday morning that if all New Mexicans ages 5 and older were to soon get vaccinated, the pandemic here would end in six to seven weeks.
Mitchell said 85 percent of COVID patients in Presbyterian hospitals are unvaccinated, and those facilities are operating at 120 percent of capacity, with 220 COVID-19 patients. As of the state’s Department of Health update Tuesday, the state had 648 COVID hospitalizations — the most since reporting 670 such hospitalizations Jan. 15.
University of New Mexico Hospital tops that, running at 140 percent of capacity.
Dr. Rohini McKee, chief quality and safety officer at UNMH, said it’s important to get vaccinated against COVID, get a flu shot, have your eligible children vaccinated, maintain good hygiene measures, wear masks and avoid indoor settings if you know unvaccinated people will be there.
Also important is getting a booster shot, because, Mitchell said, “Over time, immunity wanes,” and getting a booster vaccination “helps keep you very, very protected.”
Although the new Omicron variant has yet to officially surface in the state, Mitchell and McKee believe it’s already here, yet not detected.
“But most of all, ” she said, “we need to remain calm.”
The state has brought in more than 500 traveling nurses to deal with its current crisis standards of care and COVID-19.
On Dec. 1, in a New Mexico Department of Health update, officials noted the daily case rates in the U.S. and Mexico are on the rise — pending a possible surge from recent Thanksgiving travel and gatherings, which could make those numbers worse.
No age groups have been successful in avoiding COVID, as Dr. Christine Ross, the DOH epidemiologist, said the 5-17 age group has had a distressing case rate, followed by those in the 17-34 age group.
Dr. David Scrase, acting cabinet secretary of the NMDOG, said there has been some misinformation, with 25 percent of adults in a recent survey saying the cost of a vaccination has kept them from getting a shot. The shots are administered free, Scrase said, with 20,500 appointment time slots available specifically for kids.
In that 5-11 age group, he added, the state is “about a sixth of the way there” in vaccinations.
The average age of people dying from COVID-19 who had been immunized was 79, he said, and the average age of those unvaccinated and dying from COVID-19 was 55.
“You can add 14 years to your life by being vaccinated,” Scrase reasoned.
Updated public health order requires boosters for some vaccinated workers
An amended emergency public health order issued Thursday by the state of New Mexico will requires many workers to receive a booster shot when eligible.
The change comes as the World Health Organization and governments across the globe express serious concern about a newly identified variant, omicron, according to a state press release.
New Mexico had already mandated that workers in higher-risk environments – including health care and congregate-care settings – be vaccinated. Public school workers and state employees must get weekly COVID-19 tests if they aren’t vaccinated.
The amended public-health order, issued by Scrase, will require those categories of workers to receive a booster shot no later than Jan. 17, or within four weeks of becoming eligible.
“New Mexico is doing well with boosters, better than the national average, but we still must do better,” said Scrase. “Our hospitals are overfull, and the spread of the virus continues to exacerbate the issue. New Mexico isn’t an island, and we can’t prevent the new variant from arriving here.”
New Mexicans can schedule their COVID-19 booster shot at vaccinenm.org/boosters.
Numbers from a year ago and last week:
Dec. 1, 2020: 2,330 new state cases, with 178 in Sandoval County; 19 deaths statewide, none in Sandoval County; 909 hospitalized.
Dec. 1, 2021: 1,887 new state cases, with 116 in Sandoval County; 12 deaths statewide, none in Sandoval County; 643 hospitalized.