Home News COVID-19 Situation Health officials monitor counties bordering Texas

Health officials monitor counties bordering Texas

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In this file photo, New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase participates in an online news conference on Dec. 8. After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order lifting a statewide mask mandate, Scrase said during a news conference Wednesday he expects to see more cases along the border with Texas. (AP Photo)

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State concerned about COVID surges after Abbott lifts mask mandate

New Mexico health officials said Wednesday they will be closely watching the COVID-19 situation in counties that border Texas after that state’s governor announced an end to pandemic mandates.

On Tuesday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order lifting a statewide mask mandate and increasing the capacities of businesses and other facilities in Texas to 100%. The order goes into effect on March 10.

Mississippi followed Texas on Tuesday in announcing it was lifting its mask mandate, effective Wednesday. Montana, Iowa and North Dakota have also lifted mask mandates in the last two months.

Dr. David Scrase, secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department, noted the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising against ending mask mandates. 

He spoke during a livestreamed press conference Tuesday afternoon and was joined by Dr. Tracie Collins, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, and Dr. Christine Ross, New Mexico state epidemiologist.

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“Please, please don’t take your lead from another state,” Scrase said. “We are modeling this very closely.

“We know that masks, social distancing 6 feet apart, staying home whenever possible, keeping your hands clean, we know all these things work and we do not believe, we repeat, we do not believe that this is the time to back off on any of those procedures that restrain the spread of the virus,” Scrase said.

In presenting a COVID-19 data update during the press conference, Scrase said El Paso, Texas, had eight inpatient hospital beds available Wednesday morning, the lowest number it’s had since September. The test positivity rate there is about 15%, he said.

New Mexico’s test positivity rate is 3% as of Monday.

Scrase said state health officials will watch data on the transfer of COVID-19 patients in and out of New Mexico as well as mobility data of travel in-state and from out of state. They will watch not just the border counties, but also counties with high tourism rates, he said.

“We keep a close eye on the borders,” Ross said. “We know that there’s movement across state lines by land, by air. Specifically, we’re keeping an eye on Texas as well as Arizona and Colorado.”

Ross said testing rates, test positivity and case rates from neighboring states are all watched and shared through the U.S. Health and Human Services Department as well as through conference calls with other state epidemiologists.

A COVID-19 modeling team at the Los Alamos National Lab also reports on activity in Texas, giving an idea of what activity will be weeks in advance, Scrase said.

“I would expect we will see more cases along the border with Texas. We think removal of masks and the public health orders will increase transmission by about 40% in general,” he said.

While a 14-day self-quarantine for those entering New Mexico from high-risk states is no longer required, Scrase said it’s possible health officials would consider it again if border or tourism counties see surges in case numbers.

Regarding vaccines, Collins read a statement from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to President Joe Biden’s directive announced Tuesday to offer vaccinations to all teachers and child care workers by the end of March.

New Mexico has vaccinated about 14,000 educators and education staff members to date, according to the governor’s statement.

“Supply remains the limiting factor in how quickly we can vaccinate the many different populations in need, and to that end, we look forward to the support the federal government will provide states with regard to vaccine supply in meeting the goals of the directive,” Collins read.

Collins gave a further update on the state’s vaccination efforts, saying New Mexico ranks first in the nation in the percentage of doses used. Nationally, about 75% of doses shipped have been administered, but New Mexico has given more than 94% of its doses, Collins said.

In its weekly shipment, the state received more than 80,000 doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines and 17,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson single-dose vaccine that received emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration on Saturday.

It’s likely the state will not receive much more of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine through the end of March, however, Collins said. The company is partnering with pharmaceutical company Merck to increase production.

“For the next few weeks, we are not likely to see many doses at all, and then it will ramp up once production is underway,” she said.

The state will focus the Johnson & Johnson vaccine it has received on counties most in need, she said. She did not have a list of those counties available during the press conference.

“What we looked at was where we had positivity rates and low amounts of vaccine in the past and that’s how we selected a given county to receive vaccine doses,” she said of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The vaccines are working even better than anticipated, Scrase said.

“We now feel that 50% of the case lowering that we’re seeing is due to the vaccine, so this is more than we were initially expecting,” he said.

As of Wednesday afternoon, 609,099 doses have been administered in New Mexico, according to the NMDOH online vaccine dashboard — 389,246 of those are primary doses and 219,853 are booster doses.

Another 156 Chaves County residents registered for the vaccine compared to the dashboard’s data on Tuesday, with 24% of county residents over the age of 16 now registered.

The numbers of Chaves County residents who have been partially and fully vaccinated remained unchanged from Tuesday at 6,901 and 3,306, respectively.

Daily COVID-19 numbers

In Wednesday’s daily case update from the New Mexico Department of Health, 359 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in 24 counties and one correctional facility. Chaves County reported 13 new cases.

Bernalillo County reported the most cases Wednesday with 102. Doña Ana reported 56 and the Lea County Correctional Facility reported 37 cases among inmates. All other counties reported less than 25 new cases.

The total number of cases in the state is now 185,898 including 8,644 in Chaves County.

There were no local deaths related to the virus reported among the 13 in the state.

Bernalillo and Otero counties each reported three deaths. Luna County reported two. Doña Ana, Rio Arriba, Sandoval, San Juan and San Miguel counties each reported one death.

The total number of deaths related to COVID-19 in New Mexico is now 3,753, including 151 in Chaves County.

As of Wednesday, 195 people are hospitalized in the state for COVID-19.

City/RISD reporter Juno Ogle can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 205, or reporter04@rdrnews.com.

To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.