New Mexico health officials have added another “must” to the mantra that they’ve been endorsing since the pandemic began 17 months ago: Get vaccinated.
“That’s the biggest action that people have to take right now,” advised Presbyterian Healthcare Services Medical Director Dr. Denise Gonzales during a media availability session Tuesday morning.
It’s a weapon the medical field didn’t have available when the pandemic began in March 2020.
“Vaccines are safe; they’re effective and we can prevent an increased number of deaths from COVID-19. …You are not going to be safe until you get your shot,” said Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval. “These shots are still saving people’s lives.”
The other trio of musts: Wear a mask (indoors), social-distance and wash your hands.
In the recent surge, which President Joe Biden termed a pandemic of the unvaccinated, New Mexico has seen daily average positive-test cases equal and even surpass what was seen in early 2021.
Ninety-three percent of COVID-19 patients admitted into the state’s hospitals are unvaccinated people. As of Aug. 9, the state Department of Health reported, 74.1 percent of New Mexicans 18 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine, and 65.5 percent of them have completed their vaccination series.
“COVID cases are growing exponentially,” said Gonzales, who noted that the rise in cases among younger patients seems to be because they thought, “COVID won’t get them (now) because COVID didn’t get them already.”
The demographics of COVID patients has changed; initially most of those affected were older with underlying conditions, many of them already hospitalized. Lately, it’s been folks 50 and younger, without underlying conditions.
After daily positive-test cases averaged between 100 and 200 in the spring, new cases have surged: 340 for the last weekend of July; 478 on Aug. 3, 609 on Aug. 4 and 671 on Aug. 5, before the weekend of Aug. 7-9 hit a total of 1,309 new cases, an average of 436 a day.
The good news in all of this surge has been lower fatalities: 16 statewide, and none in Sandoval County, through the first nine days of August. Positive-test cases in the county are also on the rise, though, after no more than 19 on any single day in July and now 20 or more the first nine days this month. The high so far was 39 new cases Aug. 4.
UNM Hospital Chief Quality & Safety Officer Dr. Rohini McKee warned of “an even-more dangerous mutant (of the virus) in the future” unless more people are vaccinated “so we don’t develop more-deadly strains.”
The media participating in Tuesday’s chat with the health officials were curious about the incidence of “breakthrough cases,” defined as new COVID-19 infections in fully vaccinated people who may have been exposed to the virus that causes the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “there will be a small percentage of fully vaccinated people who still get sick, are hospitalized or die from COVID-19.”
Here in New Mexico, Gonzales reported, “The rate of breakthrough (cases) is exceedingly low,” about 7 percent of the total cases. “People will get symptoms, but you don’t get hospitalized and you don’t die.”
This recent surge, which includes a rise in pediatric COVID patients, she said, has been a virtual doubling, resulting in 22 COVID hospitalizations at Presbyterian facilities two weeks ago, 45 more the next week and nearly 90 hospitalizations by the time of the Tuesday media availability.
Statewide, hospitalizations for COVID patients — fewer than 100 per day in June and July — are climbing, up to 250 reported Tuesday afternoon.
McKee noted that “less than .01 percent of fully vaccinated people have been hospitalized this time around” and urged people to use credible sources for vaccine information — usually a primary-care physician — not just what they see on social media.
“Every patient with COVID 19 that is in the hospital is taking up the space of another patient … who needs care,” she said.
And, she added, for those wary of being inoculated or defiant about getting a vaccination, “No vaccine is 100 percent effective; we know that … but it will keep you out of the hospital.”
Hospitals are near capacity again, although not totally because of COVID patients, as many who put off having surgeries during the “original” pandemic are going in for those procedures.
In light of the summer surge, hospital visitors — still mandated to be masked — have been restricted, number-wise, in visiting patients.
“We’re dealing with an entirely different virus,” reminded McKee, and hospitals need to “ensure the safety of patients and staffs.”
Incentive still on the table
The ongoing $100 “Stay Ahead” vaccination incentive campaign continues.
In the first week of August, New Mexico has registered a 25 percent increase in vaccinations over the weekly average for July. The state projects that number to rise above 30 percent when all vaccinations are reported.
New Mexico is also seeing significant increases in vaccinations among Black/African-American residents, Hispanics/Latinos, and 12- to 17-year-olds, as well as in every region of the state.
All New Mexicans 12 and older are eligible to participate in the $100 vaccination campaign, which ends Aug. 31. Any dose — a first or second dose of Pfizer or Moderna, or a single shot of Johnson & Johnson — will qualify.
To qualify for the $100 incentive, New Mexicans must register at vaccineNM.org, although they can receive their actual vaccination dose from any provider in the state.