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PED official: COVID-19 cases declining on campuses

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The numbers of COVID-19 infections on New Mexico public school campuses has been declining in recent weeks and the Public Education Department has worked with districts to keep students and staff in classrooms, the head of the PED said Wednesday.

NMPED Secretary-designate Kurt Steinhaus provided that information during a livestreamed COVID-19 update Wednesday afternoon with Dr. David Scrase, acting secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, and Dr. Laura Parajón, deputy secretary of the Department of Health.

Steinhaus showed a graph during his presentation that detailed the number of cases among students and staff since schools returned to in-person hybrid learning last spring. A large increase in student numbers — more than 600 cases — were reported among students in early August as school reopened for the fall semester.

That number has dropped to about 400 as of last week, according to the graph.

“I’m happy to report that campus infections dropped 37% last week when compared to the week before,” Steinhaus said.

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He did say later in the press conference that PED is double-checking that data, however.

“You know the old saying, if you’re a statistician two points does not make a trend line, so we’re going to take a look over the next two or three weeks and see if it is a trend line and we’ll be pleased about it. If it’s not, then we will continue to look at what’s working and look school-by-school and make adjustments as we need to,” he said.

Surveillance testing of school staffs has also shown improvement, Steinhaus said.

Test positivity rates among school staff statewide was at 4.49% at the beginning of August, but quickly dropped to 1.35% the week of Aug. 15. As of Sept. 5, the test positivity rate was 0.74%.

“That’s really good news and we’re going to work hard to keep that,” he said.

Steinhaus also said the PED has given more local control to districts in deciding if a school needs to close to in-person classes due to a high rate of COVID-19 infections.

Shortly after the fall school year started, the PED changed its policy requiring schools with four or more rapid responses to COVID-19 cases in a two-week period to close. By then, however, Roswell Independent School District had closed four schools. El Capitan Elementary School was ordered to remote learning for two weeks by the Department of Health, while the district voluntarily closed Valley View Elementary, Goddard High School and Roswell High School. None of the schools were in remote learning for the full two weeks, however, due to the policy change.

“If a local school board sees that they’ve got an infection rate that maybe looks like they need to pause and transition to remote learning for 10 or 14 days, that’s a local decision, and that’s working exceptionally well, and the data plays that out,” Steinhaus said.

“We’ve only had 30 schools decide on their own, local decision, to transition temporarily to remote learning. That’s about 3% of our population,” he said.

The Department of Health still has the authority to close a school or conduct inspections in schools with high levels of infections, however, he said.

Parajón talked about federal funding made available to New Mexico schools through the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity funding. The $63 million for the state’s schools is part of the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, with 85% of the $62 million going to schools for COVID-19 testing. The department of health and PED are administering the funds together, she said.

“It gives really flexible and customizable options at no cost to the schools, working with PED. We found that really what schools wanted was to have an ability to choose whether they want to do this full service testing with this (contracted) group that we have, called Premiere Medical Group, or they can get trained in testing and do it themselves and also have supplemental funding to each school.

So far, 62 schools have registered for the program, Parajón said, with more than 30,000 education staff and over 184,000 students tested for COVID-19. That includes public and nonpublic schools, and Bureau of Indian Education and tribal schools.

Under PED guidelines, 25% of unvaccinated school staff must be tested each week. Student testing is voluntary.

Fifteen schools in southeast New Mexico have registered for the program, including schools in RISD, Superintendent Brian Luck said in an email to the Roswell Daily Record on Wednesday afternoon.

Regarding the number of cases statewide, Scrase said the numbers do appear to be on a downward trend now, although all but two of the state’s 33 counties remain classified as high-transmission under guidelines form the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The strain on hospitals appears to be easing as well, Scrase said. As of Tuesday morning, 19 intensive care beds and 50 general hospital beds were available in the state.

Deaths will likely continue to trend with higher numbers for at least a few weeks, however, he said.

In its daily case update for Wednesday, the state reported 690 new COVID-19 cases in the state, including 27 in Chaves County. The state’s total number of cases is now 243,085 while the county’s is 11,383.

A Chaves County woman was among the 18 deaths related to COVID-19 reported Thursday. The woman, in her 80s, had been hospitalized. She was the county’s 182nd death.

Of the other deaths, Curry County had four; Bernalillo had three; Lea and Santa Fe counties each reported two; and Cibola, Hidalgo, McKinley, Mora, Sierra and Taos counties each had one.

As of Wednesday, 375 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state.

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/.

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