I still think in certain locations, it’s reasonable to wear a mask just because of how fast this gets transmitted — Dr. Meghan Brett, an infectious disease doctor with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

A new, highly contagious strain of the coronavirus has emerged in New Mexico, as the state eclipsed 8,000 COVID-related deaths since the onset of the pandemic.

Health officials this week said people may want to consider masking up in public places because the omicron BA.5 subvariant has arrived in New Mexico. The strain is proving to be more contagious than previous versions of the omicron variant, which led to record-high COVID-19 case counts in New Mexico over the winter.

The Department of Health this week released a “Variant of Concern” report that showed by June 20, the new subvariant was representing a growing number of cases. It appears the new strain accounts for about 30% of cases and growing.

State health officials have scheduled a COVID-19 update for Thursday.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says the new variant accounts for about 68% of cases in a region comprised of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas.

Dr. Meghan Brett, an infectious disease doctor with the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center, said the virus is proving to be able to escape immune protections people created from vaccinations and previous COVID infections. The reason, she said, is the spiked protein on the new coronavirus strain is different from previous strains.

“Because it is distinct or slightly more different, the antibodies that we’ve generated won’t necessarily do as good of a job of protecting us from infection,” she said.

That said, vaccinations are still proving effective at staving off severe disease, she said. About 73% of New Mexicans 5 years and older are fully vaccinated, according to the DOH’s website.

“As this virus continues to evolve, it appears to be more transmissible. So that’s another factor that really needs to be considered,” Brett said. “I still think in certain locations, it’s reasonable to wear a mask just because of how fast this gets transmitted.”

Dr. Bette Korber, a fellow at Los Alamos National Laboratory, said scientists have expected the coronavirus to evolve and it will continue to do so in the future.

“It isn’t something that is unexpected,” she said. “Different variants have had different capacities to be more infectious and evade immune responses. … The virus is not going to stop evolving.”

She said monitoring unique variants is important not just for forecasting new waves of infections, but also for treating people who do get sick. Studying emerging variants allows experts to research in labs what will be effective treatments for sick people and also how to tweak vaccines for future booster shots, she said.

In addition to masking in some cases, Korber and Brett also recommended people consider getting booster shots amid the rise of the new variant.

“We are seeing, as the virus evolves it’s going to be less resistant to the vaccine and there are breakthrough cases. However, we are in a completely different place in the pandemic than we were when New Mexico saw its first cases over two years ago on March 11, 2020,” Jodi McGinnis Porter, a spokeswoman for the Health Department, said in an email. “Thanks to vaccines and boosters, tests (PRC and home tests), masks, oral treatments and education we have a lot of tools at our fingertips to safeguard ourselves and loved ones to help prevent serious illness and death from the virus.”

Despite the infectious nature of BA.5, New Mexico hasn’t yet seen a rise in confirmed cases.

During a seven-day period ending July 11, the state reported 5,889 new cases. The was down from 6,344 cases the week before and 6,874 for the seven-day period ending June 27.

But health officials caution that those official case counts are not including all of the cases in the community because of the advent of at-home tests.

There were 119 people with COVID admitted to hospitals during the week ending July 11. That was up from 112 admissions the prior week. There were 155 hospital admissions the week ending June 27.

There was a total of 176 with COVID hospitalized throughout the state Wednesday, including 22 patients on ventilators.

The state also reported 16 deaths, bringing the toll to 8,006 since the start of the pandemic.