Health care and government officials are hoping Americans take heed of an old Perry Como standard, “There’s no place like home for the holidays,” and stay home later this month instead of traveling to see loved ones.
“The virus is still here, and deadly and highly contagious,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said.
New Mexico on Wednesday became the 37th U.S. state to record 100,000 cases of COVID-19. It coincides with a record-shattering daily total of 40 additional COVID-19 deaths.
The Land of Enchantment was sixth-worst in average daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in the nation in the past seven days of as Dec. 3, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control website. And that’s before an expected surge in numbers from Thanksgiving was recorded.
Roswell led the way, Department of Human Service Secretary Dr. David Scrase revealed in the governor’s Nov. 29 update, and Gallup was second.
Based on surges in the state that followed Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day, he expects another surge in the days to come, because of Thanksgiving gatherings. Scrase said Presbyterian hospital beds in intensive care units are already filled to 120 percent capacity.
“I know that it is grim,” Lujan Grisham said. “We have to move forward; one death is unacceptable.”
According to the New York Times last week, CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said the next few months might be “the most difficult time in the public-health history of this nation” and predicted that U.S. virus deaths, now around 273,000, could approach 450,000 by February.
“We’re in that range potentially now, starting to see 1,500 to 2,000 to 2,500 deaths a day from this virus,” Redfield added.
The CDC has reduced the recommended minimum quarantine time for people exposed to the virus. The old standard was 14 days; now, those without symptoms may end quarantine after seven days with a negative test, or after 10 days without a negative test.
There was good news on the horizon: The governor’s office announced about 17,500 doses of the new Pfizer vaccine will be available for health care workers before the end of the month.
State goes to red, yellow, green
In an effort designed to provide local communities the flexibility to operate more day-to-day activities, New Mexico transitioned to a tiered county-by-county COVID-19 risk system on Dec. 2, enabling communities to shed burdensome restrictions — as soon as public health data show the virus is retreating within their borders.
That shift came after a two-week reset period, when state health officials enacted the most heightened level of health restrictions on businesses and day-to-day activities.
“The county-by-county framework enables counties, and the businesses and nonprofits within their borders, to operate with fewer restrictions when they slow the spread of the virus and drive down test positivity rates,” said Lujan Grisham. “It’s been a difficult year and an especially difficult past month. We must remain as vigilant as ever to contain and beat the virus; we also must look for ways to lessen the burden on our communities wherever possible, while never swerving from our top priority — protecting New Mexicans and saving lives.”
The amended emergency public health order was executed Nov. 30, installing the new framework with an effective date of Dec. 2.
Counties will operate under one of three levels, based on the average number of positive tests and new cases per capita:
• Red, signifying very high risk;
• Yellow, signifying high risk; and
• Green, signifying medium risk.
When a county fails to meet the specified metrics for a given level upon the biweekly update of the color-tiered state map, it will begin operating at the next most-restrictive level within 48 hours. When a county meets the specific metrics for a less restrictive level, the county may begin operating at that level of restrictions immediately upon update.
Updated information can be found on the state Department of Health’s website, cv.nmhealth.org.
The map was updated Dec. 2.
Regardless of the counties’ levels, these requirements remain in place statewide, according to state information:
• Face masks must be worn in public.
• Businesses that accrue a significant number of positive COVID-19 cases within their workforce in a two-week span are subject to temporary closure by the Department of Health.
• An essential business may be permitted to continue operating if the Department of Health and Environment Department determine the business is a necessary provider of goods or services within the community in light of geographic considerations.
• Businesses that test each employee every two weeks and regularly provide contact tracing data to the Environment Department shall not be subject to closure under this framework. This applies only to food and drink establishments, close-contact businesses, places of lodging, retail spaces and other businesses members of the public regularly visit.
• The closure process is triggered if four or more rapid responses occur within a 14-day period.
• Businesses and nonprofits must adhere to the state’s COVID-Safe Practices.
Earlier Monday, a trio of key health care professionals from the three major hospitals in Albuquerque held a Zoom session for the media.
Their message wasn’t much different than what the governor said later that day.
Presbyterian Chief Medical Officer Dr. Jason Mitchell said the virus doesn’t discriminate: “Young people, middle-aged, healthy and rich people have died,” he said.
Concerned with large gatherings and their impact, Lovelace Chief Medical Officer Dr. Vesta Sandoval urged New Mexicans “to delay that (holiday) gratification for a few months,” warning that even those who have recovered from the virus could have “debilitating illnesses and consequences as a result of having COVID.”
University of New Mexico Hospital Chief Quality and Safety Officer Dr. Rohini McKee said the medical professionals in the state have a vaccine committee, but in light of the necessary two doses for it to be effective, there are “a lot of challenges to this,” and that, “Every state will be able to prioritize (vaccinations) as they see fit.”
Vaccines are getting closer
Although states will make the final decisions, a government advisory panel voted nearly unanimously, 13-1, last week to make health care workers the first to receive the new vaccines, followed by nursing home residents.
The Food & Drug Administration will soon consider the authorization of vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, with an expected 20 million doses available by the end of this month.
To be determined by the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, according to The Associated Press, will be who’s next in the vaccination line: Educators, firefighters, law enforcement officers, those in food production and transportation, and people with underlying medical conditions.
A recent report on NBC News suggested the priority line will have the elderly receiving doses early, such as those 80 and older, then those 70-80, 60-70, etc.
Closer to home
The 10 ZIP codes across the state with the most COVID-19 cases on Dec. 1 included one of Rio Rancho’s two ZIP codes: 87124, basically the area south of Northern Boulevard. It was seventh.
Last month, the total number of coronavirus cases in the U.S. surpassed 4.1 million, with more than 25,500 deaths. Over the last two weeks coronavirus cases in the U.S. increased 12 percent, deaths 29 percent and hospitalizations 38 percent — up 45 percent, 60 percent and 89 percent, respectively, in New Mexico.
In Sandoval County between Nov. 16 and 30, there were 20 COVID-related deaths. Since the pandemic began, more than 97,000 New Mexicans have been infected and about 1,600 have died.
“It’s not too late,” to slow the national surge, said Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci, pleading for mask wearing and physical distancing, hand-washing and avoiding large gatherings.
Scrase said New Mexico had about 450 unemployed health-care workers, and they were being contacted to see if any wanted to return to the front lines during the pandemic, another part of the state’s strategy. Last week, hundreds of “traveling nurses” came to New Mexico to help care for the growing number of those infected.
Across the Rio Grande
Bernalillo County, the state’s largest in population, leads the number of new COVID cases on a daily basis. For example, on Dec. 1, there were 895 new cases in Bernalillo County, compared to 178 new cases in Sandoval County.
“We were trending well until November hit,” said Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller. “But we are seeing an increase we don’t want to see at all for our city. We have got to get transmission under control. We are going to continue to step up where we can; our support for vulnerable populations and our aid to businesses has been much better than cities around the country. I believe we are going to get through this together.”
Keller cited four reasons people should expect a long road ahead:
• Albuquerque is an urban center with malls, airports and hospitals that make controlling spread more challenging.
• Viruses like the flu and COVID-19 survive and are transmitted more readily in cold weather.
• The timing for when a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely available is still undetermined.
• The incubation period of this virus and testing time frames mean that positives can take up two weeks to be detected and then it can be another couple of weeks before the impact of those positives on the health care system.
(Counties at the red level are those with a new COVID-19 case incident rate of eight or more cases per 100,000 inhabitants during the most recent two-week period AND an average of positive COVID-19 test results greater than 5 percent over the most recent 14-day period. Sandoval County is at the red level.)
• Essential retail: 25 percent of maximum occupancy or 75 customers, whichever is smaller.
• Food & drink establishments: No indoor dining; outdoor dining allowed at 25 percent of maximum occupancy; establishments serving alcohol must close at 9 p.m.
• Places of lodging: 40 percent of maximum occupancy for those that have completed the NM Safe Certified program; 25 percent for establishments that have not completed the program; five guests maximum for vacation rentals.
• Essential businesses: must limit operations to only those absolutely necessary to carry out essential functions.
• Mass gatherings limit: five people, 10 vehicles.
• Close-contact businesses: 25 percent of maximum occupancy or 10 customers at one time, whichever is smaller.
• Outdoor recreational facilities: 25 percent of maximum occupancy.
• Close-contact recreational facilities: remain closed.
• Houses of worship: 25 percent maximum occupancy.
• All other businesses, including non-essential retail stores: 25 percent of maximum occupancy or 75 customers at one time, whichever is smaller.