ALBUQUERQUE, NM – New Mexico is once again considered a COVID-19 hotspot, with cases rising in nearly every county, but state health officials said they are not alarmed by the peak.
In a virtual update Thursday, Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase said the state is now paying less attention to cases and more attention to hospitalizations and deaths. These numbers are falling.
Dr Scrase said death rates fluctuate with different variants, but it appears fewer people are dying from the new dominant variants. The state has also reported fewer COVID-19 hospitalizations and a decrease in ventilator use, from 20% near the start of the pandemic to less than 6% now.
Officials attributed the progress to more New Mexicans, of all ages, getting vaccinated, boosted, getting COVID-19 testing and treatment, but also to the natural evolution of the virus.
“So bad news and good news, but exactly what we expected: the virus actually wants to live with us,” Dr Scrase said. “So it evolves over time, to infect people more easily, but it reduces the number of people killed.”
Now, with dozens of virus developments, health officials see more breakthrough cases but fewer hospitalizations and deaths. Dr. Scrase said the BA.4 and BA.5 variants account for more than half of current COVID-19 cases in New Mexico. He also said that these strains are less severe than those that preceded it.
Dr Scrase said the country is facing a different pandemic now, compared to 2020. With vaccines and drugs, he said there was no need to bring back restrictions and mask mandates.
He also said we were on track to eventually treat COVID-19 like the flu. Before that happens, death rates from the virus need to drop even more than they have recently, and the virus needs to become seasonal.
“I would welcome the day when I can get an annual photo that will see me through the winter, that is, the day when Omicron only occurs in winter, not in summer, or even two if I were to take it,” said Dr. Scrase.
In Thursday’s update, state health officials also confirmed four cases of monkeypox in New Mexico. Dr. Scrase said the tests are done in the state’s own labs and the results are sent directly to the CDC for confirmation.
He also said the disease behaves differently from COVID-19, is rarer and harder to trace because patients can take 21 days to show symptoms.
“Usually, monkeypox starts as a flu-like illness like the flu, with sore muscles, maybe a cough, runny nose, stuffy head, and fever in some people, not others” , did he declare. “But the key factor, really, is the progression to that characteristic rash that often occurs on the hands.”
Dr. Scrase said monkeypox is not airborne. It spreads through physical contact, and there are already treatments and a vaccine available for it. NMDOH has ordered 362 doses of this vaccine, which can be used by 181 patients in a two-part series. Officials said they plan to order more in the coming weeks.