A newly-discovered variant of COVID-19 Omicron was yet to be found in New Mexico, but the state health officials said they are closely monitoring and testing for the variant that was found in California and several other countries.
During a Wednesday press conference, New Mexico State Epidemiologist Christine Ross said as the World Health Organization only identified Omicron as a “variant of concern” on Nov. 26, details about it were scarce.
“There’s going to be a lot that we do not know at this juncture. Today, this new variant has not been identified in New Mexico,” Ross said. “Really it was South Africa that alerted the globe. Now that we know when to look for it, there are many countries that have identified it.”
It was first found in South Africa, and since spread to several other countries including China and United Kingdom. Omicron was particularly troubling, Ross said, because of a vast number of mutations discovered.
As of Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported up to 24 countries were identified as having Omicron cases.
Ross said the State of New Mexico planned to work closely with the CDC to increase testing and quarantine policies for international travelers coming from Omicron-positive countries.
She said the State was using its network of laboratories to continue testing for Omicron, which was not derived from the Delta or any previously-discovered strain of COVID-19.
“There’s a large number of mutations in this variant which have raised the alarm. The take home message is Omicron is not derived from Delta,” Ross said. “It did not evolve from a prior variant of concern or even a variant of interest. There’s a lot yet to be learned about this.”
Meanwhile, Ross said New Mexico was struggling with a recent surge that began over the late summer and fall brought on by the Delta variant which she said was known to be at least twice as contagious as in previous COVID-19 infections.
New Mexico saw a recent uptick in case positivity to 12.7 percent, Ross said, rising in every age group.
“What we’re grappling with this surge is Delta,” she said. “There continues to be pockets across the U.S. of really high disease transmission. We (New Mexico) are highlighted as continuing to have a high case rate.
“We continue to show a high level of community transition in all of our counties in New Mexico.”
State continues to push COVID-19 vaccines, expands offering to children
New Mexico Acting Health Secretary David Scrase said New Mexico was seeing about nine to 12 deaths from COVID-19 per day but continued to increase vaccinations and expand availability to children.
As of Tuesday, the State’s latest data showed 633 active hospitalizations for COVID-19, which Scrase said was one of the highest rates in 2021.
There were 1,887 new cases reported in New Mexico on Wednesday, bringing the state’s caseload to 316,089.
There were also 12 deaths reported in the latest data, bringing New Mexico’s death toll to 5,379.
Hospitals began filling up in August amid the Delta variant, Scrase said, with multiple declaring “crisis standards of care” to not provide elective or non-essential procedures, focusing instead on COVID-19 patients or “medically necessary” procedures.
He said the biggest shortages were in intensive care unit (ICU) facilities throughout the state.
“Our biggest crisis right now are ICU beds. About 90 percent of ICU beds in the state are in crisis standards of care hospitals,” Scrase said. “Hospitals can voluntarily go in and out of this status. We’re trying to help them with their economy and put the decision making in their hands.”
With about 20,500 hospitalizations since the pandemic first hit New Mexico in March 2020, the State reported 6.5 percent of its infections resulted in hospitalization.
“We’re still running a very high number of cases. I think the highest number of hospitalizations that we’ve had all year,” Scrase said. “Every death is a sad occasion. Our hearts go out to the families.”
He reported 62 percent of New Mexicans were fully vaccinated and 38 remained unvaccinated, but “fully-vaccinated” status could soon be expanded to include booster shots for some healthcare employees and teachers.
About 370,000 booster shots were given to New Mexicans 18 and older, Scrase said, with a 15 percent increase in booster shots in the last week.
“Getting people fully vaccinated is still New Mexico’s first priority,” he said. “We want to get everyone in New Mexico vaccinated who can possibly be vaccinated.”
He said there were about 45,270 booster appointments available as of Nov. 30, with 63,287 filled.
For children ages 5 to 11, Scrase said 30,246 first doses were given, about a sixth of the State’s goal.
“New Mexico continues to run ahead of the national average,” Scrase said of vaccinations. “We still wish more people would get boosters. We have a lot of places to get boosters.”
But as business and public gathering restrictions were lifted across the state as vaccines became available, Scrase worried large venues for giving vaccine doses were becoming unavailable as they reverted back to their original use.
“As we move in the booster phase of this, COVID vaccines should really take place in doctors and physicians’ offices,” Scrase said. “One of our critical shortages right now are facilities in which to give vaccines.”
Nursing homes improving in COVID-19 infection rates
Despite the ongoing challenges, New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department Cabinet Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez said the state’s nursing homes were improving with increased vaccination rates and decreased infections.
She said there were less than 400 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in the last week, compared with a peak of more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 residents of nursing homes over the fall.
About 91 percent of residents were vaccinated, Hotrum-Lopez said, with an average of less than a death day after vaccines were introduced compared to a pre-vaccine average of 10 daily fatalities.
“Things are looking better,” Hotrum-Lopez said. “This week we have been trending down. The nursing home cases are really tied to what’s happening in that county or community. We’re encouraged by that and thankful to the community and staff and residents for continuing to wear masks, social distance and continued to get vaxxed and boosted.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.