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Health official answers county COVID questions

County staff and commissioners prepare Thursday for an online meeting with Dr. Daniel Sosin, a medical epidemiologist with the New Mexico Department of Health. Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell Jr. walks into the Commission Chamber. Commissioner Richard Taylor is seated at the dais. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Chaves County commissioners saw little reason to expect any lessening of COVID-19 restrictions in the near future after they talked Thursday with a state medical epidemiologist.

Will Cavin, chair of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners, said he appreciated Commissioner Jeff Bilberry’s efforts to arrange the remote meeting with Dr. Daniel Sosin of the New Mexico Department of Health.

“You helped to finally get somebody to have a conversation with us, even though he didn’t quite answer all the questions that we needed or give us any results to solving the real problem that we have right now,” Cavin said.

The county risk-assessment methods used by the state put Chaves County and most counties in New Mexico in the “high-risk” Red Level, which comes with the most restrictions. Two commissioners said they are aware of people moving to Texas, Arizona and Colorado for business and school purposes because those states have fewer COVID restrictions.

Cavin also said that he hoped the meeting might prompt other city and county officials to start talking with state officials so that changes in policies might occur in the future.

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People attending Thursday’s meeting included three Roswell city councilors, a Roswell Independent School District board member, a representative for 2nd Congressional District Rep. Yvette Herrell, a senior administrator with Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell and Curry County commissioners.

Bilberry asked several questions and also said that he thought New Mexicans need to find a way to “get back to living again.” Commissioner Dara Dana made several remarks, including that the session reinforced her thought that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is the one making the public health decisions, which Dana said were sometimes the result of selective choices about which public health research and guidance to follow.

Commissioner Richard Taylor said he considered the meeting a review of information known to most people and said county residents need to continue to practice COVID-safe activities and get vaccinated. Commissioner T. Calder Ezzell Jr. said he found most salient the fact that the “Green Level” or medium-risk rating, which comes with the fewest restrictions, requires an average daily COVID case count of eight or fewer per 100,000 population, with the numbers averaged over a 14-day period.

“That means we will have to have fewer than 5.2 cases a day to move anywhere, so there you have it,” he said.

Chaves County has a population of about 65,000. During the most recent 14-day reporting period ended Jan. 25, Chaves County had 55.9 cases per 100,000 population. That number is an improvement over recent reporting periods. The data will be updated Feb. 10.

Sosin said state case numbers, deaths and hospitalizations are decreasing, but that state officials are remaining vigilant.

“We are constantly on the alert for these rates to start going up again,” Sosin said.

He said current concerns include COVID-19 variants that could cause future surges and upcoming “super spreader” events such as Super Bowl watch parties.

The state issued an announcement Thursday morning asking people to refrain from gathering with people who are not household members on Sunday for Super Bowl events and to limit person-to-person contact while shopping.

Sosin told the commissioners that the state and laboratories work together to ensure the quality of COVID-19 data and the reporting methods.

“We do feel that we are getting highly accurate reporting,” Sosin said.

Sosin also answered specific questions from people attending in person or online.

• COVID case numbers are reported to the public by the Department of Health on the day they are submitted electronically to the state from laboratories, not on the date of the test. Therefore, spikes in case numbers on any given day might reflect laboratory activity rather than actual spikes in county cases. Sosin said gating and risk assessment criteria use 14-day or seven-day rolling averages to smooth out the discrepancies from day to day.

• The state’s gating criteria and county risk-assessment methods are as restrictive as they are in large part because they are meant to ensure that New Mexico hospitals and the health care system do not get overwhelmed.

• Sosin said the state works to achieve the right balance between public health precautions and business and social activity. He said studies have proven that indoor eating and drinking result in significant community spread.

• He said he is not aware of any new or expanded COVID-19 precautions required by increased immigration from Mexico that some think might occur with a new presidential administration.

• Sosin said he does not anticipate that the state would ever make COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory, although he said he thought it might be possible that the state could decide to restrict school access to those who have been immunized. He also noted the state’s vaccine supplies are provided to counties based on their population size.

• Sosin agreed to let state officials know that Curry County residents want full-time in-person schooling for youth. But he added his view that public health guidance indicates that low community spread, as well as COVID-safe practices, are typically considered necessary to move from hybrid learning to all in-person learning.

• Sosin acknowledged that the state has decided to continue using the three-minute contact rule for requiring people in public schools to quarantine after coming into contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19. He said the CDC has extended that to 15 minutes, but he said three minutes is not “casual contact” and means that people have had a conversation.

• He could not answer whether requiring public school football players to wear face coverings along with other equipment makes them safer. He said he would have to research the question. One question was if face coverings in conjunction with helmets and mouth guards could cover players’ eyes or cause difficulty with breathing.

• Sosin said he does not have reason to believe that COVID-19 variants will create a “never-ending” pandemic for the state. Although variants could cause higher rates of infections and create surges, he said, virus variants are common and typically do not reach pandemic levels of infections on their own.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.