Predicting the spread of COVID-19 is even more difficult than predicting the weather, one New Mexico official said, but looking at the numbers, some things become clear: Southeast New Mexico is now the state’s hot spot and is behind the state’s goal in testing for the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“We have a better idea what the weather is going to look like next Friday than we do what the positivity rate is going to look like in any given county on any given day,” David Morgan, media and social media manager for the New Mexico Department of Health, said.
“But that said, right now, southeastern New Mexico, many of those counties are hot spots for New Mexico, and we just want people to be well and to take necessary precautions to be able to protect themselves and people around them,” he said.
The positivity rate — or the percentage of tests that are positive for COVID-19 — is one of the state’s gating criteria for moving forward in its phased reopening plan. The target is 5% or less.
In urging for more testing during her press conference Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called out southeast New Mexico for the high positivity rate in four of its counties — Chaves, Eddy, Lea and Roosevelt — as an area where the state will increase testing.
Support Local Journalism
Subscribe to the Roswell Daily Record today.
Support Local Journalism
“We are really pushing it out in counties where the positivity rate is above 5%, so southeast New Mexico as an example,” she said in her press conference Thursday.
In the state’s latest two-week assessment of COVID-19 data, taken Sept. 2 to Sept. 15, Chaves County has the highest positivity rate in the state at 8.6%. Eddy County is next at 8.3%, Lea County at 8.1% and Roosevelt County 6.5%. Luna and Catron counties in southwest New Mexico also have high rates at 7.8% and 6.6% respectively.
Each of those counties also has an average of more than eight new cases of COVID-19 a day in that time period, putting them in the state’s “red zone” in gating criteria.
Quay County, with a positivity rate of 5.4% but six new cases a day on average, is the only county in the “yellow zone.” The state’s remaining counties are in the “green zone” with a positivity rate of 5% or less and fewer than eight new cases per day.
Green zone counties are able to operate with fewer restrictions, such as being able to conduct the hybrid model of learning in public schools and allowing visitation to nursing homes.
While a high positivity rate suggests higher transmission, it can also mean the total number of tests is too low, according to Johns Hopkins University.
New Mexico looks at it as a way to contain the virus, the governor said.
“Getting tested keeps you and your community safe and it allows us to isolate COVID, which means we bring down the rate of transmission and those positivity rates,” she said Thursday.
The state’s target for testing is 5,000 a day based on a seven-day rolling average, but Lujan Grisham said Thursday she would like to see that increased to 7,000 a day.
“We are diligently chasing supplies. While every week is a challenge, we have sufficient supplies to do 7,000 to 7,500 tests a week most weeks,” she said.
Each of the state’s regions — southeast, southwest, northwest, northeast and the metro area — have a target of 500 tests a day, said James Masters, southeast region director for the New Mexico Department of Health.
The remaining tests come from community partners such as physicians and private laboratories.
Southeast New Mexico has not been hitting that goal, however.
“What we’re seeing in our region, at least for public health testing, usually half that. I would say anywhere from usually 250 to maybe 350” a day, Masters said.
That number has been fairly consistent overall since March, although day-to-day testing numbers can fluctuate. That might explain Chaves County’s varied daily reports of positive tests, he said. This week, for example, there were nine new cases of COVID-19 reported Monday, four on Tuesday and 22 on Wednesday.
An increase could also mean the area has seen rapid response from the state to reports of COVID-19 at a business. There have been 195 rapid responses in Chaves County with a total of 216 cases since May 27, according to data from the New Mexico Environment Department.
“It’s hard to really say why we see numbers that fluctuate that way, and I wish I had some great answer for you on that. I just can’t explain why,” Masters said.
“I always tell our staff we do the best you can every day, but you can’t make people come to test,” he said.
A recent Sunday testing day in Roswell didn’t draw many people, Masters said, and the governor said a recent testing event in Carlsbad drew only a handful of people.
“Weekends are tough anyway just because they are the weekend. Our main message is we want people to know we are available. We don’t test at every office every weekend, but we do want to make ourselves available by being open on those days,” Masters said.
The Roswell Public Health Office, 200 E. Chisum St., will have drive-thru testing from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Registration is required by going to https://cvtestreg.nmhealth.org.
The state is also expanding testing hours in the region. In addition to the weekday 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. hours for the drive-thru testing at the Roswell office, Masters said testing is now available from 1 to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
Testing is available at no cost to New Mexico residents, but insurance will be billed.
In addition to increased testing, state officials continue to push the concept of wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and washing hands.
Continuing to communicate those ideas is key, Morgan said.
“I think that different parts of the state understand the risks better than others. I had the great opportunity to be able to meet with Alamogordo city commissioners, and an epidemiologist and I were able to answer their questions, and by and large, in doing so, also answer a lot of public questions about this. So communication like that doesn’t always present itself everywhere, but I think that was beneficial,” Morgan said.
Otero County, even though its population and demographics are similar to Chaves County, according to 2019 U.S. Census estimates, has far fewer cases.
Chaves County’s population is 64,615 and Otero County is 67,490. Both counties have a little more than 10 people per square mile. Yet Otero County has had 260 confirmed cases of COVID-19 to Chaves County’s 1,116, according to Friday’s update from the state health department.
In addition, Otero County is in the green zone with 1.9 cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 1.3%.
Morgan said cases from Holloman Air Force Base are included in the county’s reporting.
Otero County, however, has had even fewer tests than Chaves County — 14,736 to Chaves County’s 21,943. Otero also has a lower Hispanic population than Chaves County — 38.65% to 57.8%, according to census estimates.
Hispanics have been hit disproportionately by the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control, Hispanics make up about 18% of the U.S. population but about 26% of the COVID-19 related deaths. In New Mexico, Hispanics have comprised the highest percentage of hospitalizations for COVID-19 since early July, according to the Department of Health.
Morgan said studies worldwide have shown that wearing face masks does make a difference in limiting the spread of the coronavirus and people in the state’s green counties are possibly more amenable to wearing them.
But he conceded the increase in southeastern counties could be, at least in part, a natural progression of a viral disease from areas of higher populations to lower populations.
“Logically speaking, you do see some of that in play. When you look at the daily case numbers, the most urban areas of New Mexico do still have double-digit positive case numbers,” he said.
“But this doesn’t go one way, it goes in all ways. It’s not a back and forth. It’s not a highway, it’s a virus, and the virus will just glom onto whomever it can get,” he said.
“That roulette of that randomness is really the X-factor to this virus that is not fun for any of us. We can’t let our guard down for a second,” he said.
Both Morgan and Lujan Grisham acknowledged “COVID fatigue” — the exhaustion, stress and frustration at dealing with the pandemic and isolation people might feel — is also a factor that has to be fought.
“Do not let COVID fatigue prevent you from doing what you know is right. Stay home as often as you can, always wear your mask, socially distance,” Lujan Grisham said.
“This is not political, this is a pandemic. The best weapon that we have against preventing the spread of COVID-19 is really, truly each other. I recognize that maybe sounds cheesy, but it’s absolutely true,” Morgan said.
City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or email@example.com.
To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.