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New Mexico facing ‘serious problems’ amid latest COVID-19 surge, health officials warn

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(ALBUQUERQUE, N.M.) -- COVID-19 cases in New Mexico are "trending in a worrisome direction," health officials said this week, as they called on residents to get vaccinated amid the surge.

New Mexico reported 1,530 new cases and 539 hospitalizations Wednesday, rivaling numbers last seen in December and January, during the state's last COVID-19 wave.

"Things are not going well in our hospitals," Dr. David Scrase, acting cabinet secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, said during a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday, noting the state is "facing some very serious problems," including with intensive care unit capacity.

"Last week, we had only eight ICU beds, now we're up to 10 -- still nowhere near enough ICU beds," he said. "What this does mean is someone having a heart attack right now may or may not have access to ICU care in New Mexico, and frankly, as cases start rising again in other states, we may not find a bed there."

Six hospitals across the state have activated crisis standards of care in recent weeks, including the University of New Mexico Health System's and Presbyterian Healthcare Services' Albuquerque metro hospitals, as they are being stretched to the limit in terms of space and staffing due to increasing COVID-19 hospitalizations and a high volume of patients with acute conditions, officials said.

The decision means that nonessential medical procedures could be delayed by up to 90 days, and patients may need to get treated at different regional hospitals, or possibly out of state, hospital officials said.

Given the high risk for exposure and rising hospitalizations, New Mexico was one of the first in a growing number of states to urge all fully vaccinated adults to get boosters once they meet the six- or two-month thresholds, ahead of federal authorization.

"I want folks to get their boosters," New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during the briefing. "Until we get to that 80, 85, 90% of individuals who are eligible for a booster, we are going to see these risks where we have breakthrough infections."

Over 21% of fully vaccinated residents have gotten a booster dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Health officials have cited waning immunity among fully vaccinated residents as one of the factors fueling the surge in COVID-19 cases, along with transmission of the highly contagious delta variant, increased tourism to the region and colder weather driving people indoors.

Amid the surge, health officials are also focused on getting shots to people who have yet to get a first dose. Unvaccinated residents remain a major driver of transmission and make up the bulk of hospitalizations, with over 71% of new COVID-19 cases and nearly 80% of hospitalizations reported from Oct. 18 to Nov. 15 in unvaccinated people, according to state data.

"Full vaccination is still New Mexico's first priority," Dr. Laura Parajón, deputy secretary for the New Mexico Department of Health, said during the briefing. "If you look at the whole of New Mexico, the whole population, 61.4% of all New Mexicans are vaccinated. However, we are having a surge, because 38.6% of people still remain unvaccinated."

COVID-19 cases across New Mexico are currently "trending in a worrisome direction," according to Dr. Christine Ross, the state epidemiologist, with the positivity rate at about 12.5%.

"What this means to us is there's a very high burden of disease in our communities," she said during the briefing, noting that transmission among school-aged children in particular is "very concerning."

Over 25% of COVID-19 infections in the past week in New Mexico were pediatric cases, according to Ross. With children ages 5 to 11 newly eligible to get vaccinated, health officials urged parents to get their children vaccinated.

"We know that children are at low risk for serious outcomes, but they are not at zero risk," Ross said. "These vaccines are safe and highly effective. This is the best tool to protect your kids and to prevent onward transmission of the virus and to help us end the pandemic."

Scrase said he is excited by the prospect of outpatient oral antiviral treatments for COVID-19, such as molnupiravir, though they're not available yet.

For now, he urged people to continue to follow measures like social distancing and mask-wearing. New Mexico is one of a handful of states that still have mask mandates in effect. The state's health department extended an order requiring masks while in indoor public settings through Dec. 10, due to the significant COVID-19 case counts and strained hospital capacity.

Scrase also warned against unproven treatments for COVID-19, noting that New Mexico saw a third death since August from ivermectin, an anti-parasite medicine that is not authorized by the Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of COVID-19. The man took 150 milligrams of a horse formulation of ivermectin and suffered from liver and kidney failure, according to Scrase.

Health officials said they're continuing to work with community health workers and local organizations to combat misinformation and vaccine hesitancy.

"We're really trying to meet people where they're at," Parajón said.

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