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Health officials encourage COVID-safe holiday

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State health officials encouraged New Mexicans to practice a COVID-safe holiday including using rapid at-home tests for the virus before gathering.

Wednesday’s livestreamed press conference was the first bilingual press conference presented by NMDOH. Dr. Laura Parajón, deputy secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health, presented information on testing and vaccinations in English and then in Spanish. She said it was part of the state’s effort to reach the Spanish-speaking population. New Mexico’s Hispanic population is the ethnic group with the lowest rate of vaccinations in the state at 48.5%.

The press conferences have been presented simultaneously with a Spanish translator on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s YouTube channel.

Parajón and State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross emphasized the usual practices of avoiding large groups and poorly ventilated areas, wearing masks indoors and washing hands frequently as methods of preventing the spread of COVID-19 during the holidays.

Testing is also an important part of prevention, they said, including rapid antigen home tests available from pharmacies. Parajón demonstrated the use of a rapid antigen test during the press conference. Her test was negative.

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NMDOH will soon make about 20,000 rapid tests available for free in areas of the state with high poverty and high case rates, Parajón said.

“We’ll be giving it to areas of high case rates and high social vulnerability,” she said, referring to an index used by federal and state agencies to determine areas where people need more support due to factors such as poverty, lack of access to transportation, age, disability or lack of adequate housing.

“That will include rural areas as well, but it will also include urban areas with higher transmission rates in those ZIP codes, and also places that have high case rates,” Parajón said.

The state will also coordinate its efforts to identify those areas where access is difficult with President Biden’s initiative to provide a half-billion at-home tests for free. Those tests will be ordered online and sent through the mail.

Parajón said the antigen tests should be taken before attending a gathering whether or not someone is experiencing any symptoms of COVID-19.

“It’s really important that we actually have a way to check on that day how infectious you are and that’s what these tests really do,” she said.

If a test is positive, the individual should isolate themselves for 10 days from the onset of symptoms or, if asymptomatic, from the time of the test, she said. The individual should also alert anyone they have had recent contact with and their health care provider.

If a test is negative and the individual has no symptoms, it is safe to attend a gathering, Parajón said.

If the test is negative but the individual is showing symptoms of COVID-19, then a follow-up test should be conducted. The follow-up test can be the more accurate PCR test or another antigen home test conducted three days later, she said.

For those who do test positive, the individual should stay isolated at home in a room by themselves. If a separate room is not possible, they should wear a mask during the 10 days at home. Covering coughs and sneezes, washing hands frequently and cleaning of surfaces that are frequently touched is necessary, she said.

If symptoms worsen, including shortness of breath, an individual should seek health care.

The health officials also spoke about pharmaceutical company Pfizer’s antiviral pill for treating COVID-19, which on Wednesday received emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is expected to give its approval quickly, clearing the way for the drug to be prescribed. It will be available to those 12 and older at high risk for severe cases of COVID-19.

New Mexico is slated to receive only about 340 doses of the drug, Paxlovid. It has been shown to be 90% effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths, according to Pfizer’s clinical trials, and appears to be effective against the omicron variant of the virus. That could be beneficial because treatments for those at high risk called monoclonal antibody treatments have been shown to be less effective against the new variant.

The Pfizer pills will first be distributed to areas with less access to the monoclonal antibody treatments, Parajón said.

“Rural areas that have less access is one of our priorities as well as other areas that have difficulty accessing like jails and prisons as well as places like shelters,” she said.

Much is still unknown about the omicron variant, Ross said, but it is spreading quickly and has been verified in 47 states including New Mexico. Modeling by the CDC suggests it could be as much as 73% of cases in the country, but Ross said New Mexico data shows the delta variant is still dominant here.

The first New Mexico case caused by omicron was detected in Albuquerque on Dec. 14. No other cases have been verified yet, but Ross said there is a lag of time between an initial test and verification through genetic sequencing.

A COVID-19 lab test can indicate the omicron variant through what’s called an S-gene target failure.

“If we detect that, that’s an indication that we might be dealing with an omicron case. We do have a few S-gene target failure specimens at our state lab that we’re going to be sequencing so it’s possible we have a few more cases to report out,” she said.

Ross and Parajón stressed the importance of vaccines and booster shots to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The state is one of 27 jurisdictions that the CDC is using to track COVID-19 surveillance data.

It is available to view on the CDC’s COVID-19 tracker website.

“The absolutely important takeaway message is that the data that was examined showed that unvaccinated persons have 10 times the risk of testing positive for COVID-19 and they have 20 times the risk of dying from COVID-19. This is compared to fully vaccinated persons with that additional dose or booster,” she said.

In New Mexico, the unvaccinated comprised 70.6% of cases, 82% of hospitalizations and 87.4% of deaths between Nov. 22 and Dec. 20, according to this week’s epidemiology reports.

In Wednesday’s daily case update from NMDOH, 39 deaths related to COVID-19 were reported, including three in Chaves County — a woman in her 90s, a man in his 60s and a man in his 80s. All three had been hospitalized and the woman and the man in his 60s both had underlying health conditions, according to the update. Their deaths bring the county’s total to 230.

Among the other deaths, Bernalillo County had 12, and Doña Ana and Sandoval counties each had five. Roosevelt, San Juan, Santa Fe and Valencia counties each reported two deaths, and Cibola, Luna, Mora, Rio Arriba, Socorro and Torrance counties each reported one. Twenty-nine had been hospitalized and 23 had underlying health conditions.

The total number of deaths in the state is now 5,701.

Twenty-nine counties and one correctional facility reported a total of 914 cases in Thursday’s update including 66 in Chaves County. The total number of cases in the state since March 2020 is 341,509 including 14,957 in Chaves County.

As of Wednesday, 560 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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