Home News COVID-19 Situation Health officials say still much unknown about omicron

Health officials say still much unknown about omicron

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It’s still much too early to tell whether or not the newest variant of the coronavirus spreads more rapidly or causes more severe cases of COVID-19, New Mexico health officials said Wednesday. Likewise, they said it was too early to know how or whether or not vaccination against the disease will be a part of the post-pandemic world.

The omicron variant was identified in a New Mexico case of COVID-19 Monday and is also now in 34 other states, but 99.9% of cases in New Mexico are still caused by the delta variant, Dr. Christine Ross, state epidemiologist, said in a livestreamed press conference Wednesday.

Many questions still remain about the omicron variant, she said.

“We learn about it daily and we expect to answer many of these questions over the next few weeks but we still don’t have definitive answers to share today,” she said.

How easily the omicron variant spreads, the severity of disease it causes and how resistant it is to current treatments and vaccines are still not known, Ross said.

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Most of the cases recorded so far in the U.S. have been among vaccinated people, so it is difficult to tell if it causes more severe cases, she said.

Preliminary data also suggests a reduced effectiveness of the vaccines against omicron in infection, re-infection and transmission, Ross said, but vaccines do appear to remain protective against severe illness and death, especially among those who have received a booster shot.

The unvaccinated continue to comprise the largest percentages of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in New Mexico, said Dr. David Scrase, acting secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health. Among cases from Nov. 15 to Dec. 13, unvaccinated New Mexicans made up 72% of COVID-19 cases, 81.2% of hospitalizations and 81.6% of deaths.

Older New Mexicans are having fewer of the state’s cases, especially among the breakthrough cases, or those that occur in people who are fully vaccinated, Scrase said. The 25 to 39 age group has had the most breakthrough cases since Feb. 1, according to data Scrase showed during the press conference. Those 40-49 are the second-highest age group with breakthrough cases followed by 18 to 24 and 50 to 64.

Mortality rates are much lower than they were a year ago, and Scrase said he believed that is due in part to older New Mexicans taking more precautions than younger generations, such as a higher rate of vaccinations, staying home more and wearing masks when out.

“By simply having less cases in seniors, that could account for a huge part of the decline in the mortality rate,” he said.

Ross noted that about 23% of the state’s cases now occur in school-age children who typically fare much better against COVID-19 with less severe cases and fewer hospitalizations and deaths than other age groups.

As to questions about the future of living with the virus, Scrase and Ross said it was too soon to really tell, but it’s not likely society will return to what was considered normal before the pandemic. There is still much debate, they said, about whether or not COVID-19 vaccines will be needed frequently, like the influenza virus.

“The real wild card here is the fact that a large portion of the globe is still not vaccinated,” Ross said. “What is happening around the globe affects all of us, and so if we don’t get more people vaccinated around the globe, we’re going to continue to see new variants emerge. As new variants emerge, these are the wild cards that could certainly impact progress made by our vaccination efforts to date.

“It’s likely that we will see ourselves needing a regular COVID shot like the flu, but the exact timing and frequency of that I don’t feel I can even venture a guess,” she said.

In the daily case update Wednesday, NMDOH reported 1,357 new cases of COVID-19 in 32 counties and one correctional facility. The report included 81 new cases in Chaves County. The state’s rolling seven-day test positivity rate dropped to 9.9% from 10.6% in Tuesday’s report. Chaves County’s average test positivity rate for Nov. 30 to Dec. 13 was 17.57%, according this week’s community transmission report.

The total number of cases in New Mexico since March 2020 is now 334,324, of which 85% are considered recovered. Chaves County has had 14,625 cases, of which 89% are considered recovered.

Twenty-five deaths related to COVID-19 were announced in Wednesday’s report. Nine of the deceased were from Bernalillo County. San Juan County had three deaths, Doña Ana, Santa Fe and Valencia counties each had two, and Curry, Lincoln, Luna, Rio Arriba, Roosevelt, Sandoval and Torrance counties each had one.

The ages of the deceased ranged from three men in their 30s from Bernalillo, Santa Fe and Torrance counties to two men and three women in their 80s from Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Luna, Santa Fe and Valencia counties.

The total number of deaths related to COVID-19 in New Mexico is 5,516 including, 223 in Chaves County.

As of Wednesday, 613 people were hospitalized in New Mexico 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/.

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