Home News COVID-19 Situation Health officials unsure why state’s COVID cases still high

Health officials unsure why state’s COVID cases still high

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New Mexico is at an “uncomfortably high plateau” in the trend of new COVID-19 cases, but state health officials cannot pinpoint any one reason why the spread of the virus remains high despite the state’s high vaccination rate.

Dr. Christine Ross, state epidemiologist, said in a livestreamed press conference Wednesday that overall, the United States is seeing a downward curve of new COVID-19 cases, but that is not the case in New Mexico. The state does have far fewer cases now than it did during the surge last winter, however.

“Clearly we flattened this curve, but it is not trending down as we would like to see it. We are sitting on this very uncomfortable plateau, which is highly impacting our healthcare delivery system,” she said.

That plateau is especially evident in the metro region of the state, which due to its population drives the statewide trends.

The northwest region is particularly worrisome, Ross said.

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“Unlike the metro, which is sitting at this high-level plateau, we actually see an increasing seven-day moving average for the northwest region, which is very, very concerning,” she said.

She showed a graph of the region’s case rates showing that from Sept. 9 to Oct. 9, that seven-day average increased from fewer than 100 cases per day to more than 150 per day.

The southwest region is also showing an increase in its seven-day moving average, although not as sharply as the northwest. The northeast region has also plateaued.

Southeast New Mexico, however, has shown a different trend.

“The southeast had an unusual pattern from the other regions where we saw a very steep rise in the seven-day moving average of cases and then a very sharp decline,” she said.

The graph for southeast New Mexico shows the seven-day average at less than 10 cases per day in early July, then rising steeply to almost 300 cases per day toward the end of August and declining to just over 100 cases per day at the end of September. The latest data on the graph shows fewer than 100 cases per day, although all positive samples collected in October might not yet be reported.

New Mexico continues to have one of the higher vaccination rates in the country with 82% of adults fully vaccinated, but community spread continues to be high. Every county in the state is considered to have high transmission with more than 14.29 new cases per day per 100,000 people and a test positivity higher than 10% on average.

Dr. David Scrase, acting secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health, said he and other health officials don’t have a good answer for why that is the case but had several theories.

“One is that the immune protection afforded by the original vaccine isn’t quite as specific for the delta variant as it was for the previous variants,” he said.

The delta variant, which was first detected in New Mexico in June and now makes up nearly 100% of cases, has proven to be five times more infectious than previous variants, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Another theory is that because New Mexico rolled out vaccines so quickly that waning immunity, or a decline in the antibodies the vaccines produce in the body, is a factor.

“If we were first in getting everybody vaccinated, we may be first out in terms of that continued protection, so it underscores the importance of the booster shots,” he said.

The rate of vaccine disparity among certain ethnic groups and those living in poverty or with low incomes could also be a factor, he said.

In areas of the state where less than 5% of the people live below the federal poverty limit, there is a 7.4% chance of COVID-19 infection, according to NMDOH data Scrase showed. In areas where 40% or more of the population lives in poverty, there is a 14.9% chance of infection.

“Those are probably three of probably a number of factors that are interacting together,” he said.

He said the state’s team that creates predictive models of COVID-19 data spent almost all of a Tuesday meeting discussing the issue and couldn’t come up with a single answer.

“I think the real answer is we don’t know. We have lots of theories, and we’re hoping as this evolves, we’ll get more data and have a better understanding of where we’re going,” he said.

In the daily case update for Wednesday, NMDOH reported 959 new cases of COVID-19 in 30 counties. Chaves County reported 40 new cases.

The total number of cases in the state since March 2020 is now 272,855, including 12,695 in Chaves County.

Fifteen deaths related to the virus were announced in Wednesday’s update. Four of the deceased were from Bernalillo County. Otero and Valencia counties each had two deaths. Cibola, Grant, Luna, McKinley, San Juan, Santa Fe and Taos counties each had one.

The ages of the deceased ranged from a man in his 20s from Santa Fe County to a man in his 90s from Grant County. Thirteen had been hospitalized and eight had underlying health conditions.

The total number of deaths in New Mexico is 5,027, with 201 in Chaves County.

As of Wednesday, there were 389 people 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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