NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – On March 11, 2020, New Mexico Department of Health Officials announced the first cases of COVID-19 in the state. KRQE News 13 spoke with Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University, and Judy Mourant, a biological physicist at Los Alamos National Labs, to learn what a year of data reveals about our state’s response.

“I think New Mexico is emerging as a role model,” Khubchandani says. Despite being “a small state with so many challenges,” New Mexico “did a phenomenally good job in protecting people,” he explains. 

What New Mexico did right, Khubchandani says, includes the repeated lockdowns and restrictions on movement. Only two days after the state confirmed the first cases, former New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel issued the first public health order, which prohibited gatherings of 100 or more people. In the following days, a whirlwind of orders brought restrictions on many aspects of New Mexico life, limiting nursing home visits and closing schools across the state.

As difficult as these restrictions were, they did help keep New Mexicans safe, Khubchandani says. Mourant, who has been tracking COVID-19 data at Los Alamos National Labs, tends to agree. In fact, you can see the positive effects of some shutdowns and restrictions in the data, she says.

COVID-19 cases tended to rise after restrictions were loosened (green) and fall when restrictions were tightened (red)

The public’s actions are reflected in the case data, Mourant explains. In the beginning, New Mexico had a shutdown, and cases were relatively low. On the other hand, when restrictions were eased and the state was opened up, cases tended to rise, she says. 

As case numbers rose, testing sites opened across the state. Throughout the pandemic, the total number of tests per capita in New Mexico was consistently higher than the nationwide per capita testing total, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project and the U.S. Census Bureau. As of March 11 2021, New Mexico is among the top 25% of states with the most tests by population, according to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine. But, early in the pandemic, testing was only available for those with symptoms — it was several weeks before the New Mexico Department of Health expanded testing to potential asymptomatic carriers.

By the beginning of April, the state began allowing more people to get tested, including nursing home residents, people in jail, and asymptomatic people who had been in close contact with others who tested positive. Still, as COVID-19 cases soared, some testing centers were overwhelmed. Hundreds of people lined up (in their cars) to get tested at the Balloon Fiesta Park in July. At the time, testing centers were reporting a total of about 6,000 tests a day, according to data from the Department of Health. Now, a year into the pandemic, daily tests often double that number.

As the pandemic wore on, the Navajo Nation quickly became one of the hardest-hit communities in the nation. There was clearly a need for increased aid efforts in northwestern New Mexico. And many New Mexicans sprang into action. Data shows that throughout the pandemic, northwestern counties with high poverty rates — such as McKinley, Cibola, and San Juan — had relatively high per capita COVID-19 testing rates. In other words, the data suggests that tests were going to regions with the greatest need, not just regions with the most money.

If that’s true, that can be considered a success, Khubchandani says. But he points out that there may be an alternative explanation: The higher testing rates in these counties might simply reflect the fact that people in these communities were more eager to get tested than in other counties. Either way, Khubchandani says that despite continued efforts to test New Mexico’s residents, many regions “were neglected in terms of public health infrastructure, and we ended up paying a cost for it.”

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New Mexico seems to have done a good job unrolling testing in poverty-stricken counties, but it wasn’t enough to keep cases low.

As terms like “social distancing” and “work from home” became the new normal, New Mexicans faced a constant barrage of COVID-19-related information, including a dizzying array of charts and statistics. For non-experts, the volume of information can become overwhelming and even anxiety-inducing, Khubchandani says. But for scientists and officials, data has been both a barometer, giving New Mexicans a sense of the health of their community, and a tool for guiding policy and distributing key resources. For example, data has helped hospitals predict how many beds they might need, Mourant says. Khubchandani puts it this way: “Data is key, data is hot property, and data is fact.” 

By the beginning of November of 2020, the facts of the data suggested that that the pandemic would only worsen, despite any respite brought on by the earlier public health orders. As New Mexico’s death toll surpassed 1,000 residents, the governor ordered state flags lowered to half-staff. Hospitalization rates in early November were more than triple those of the previous month. The shocking numbers prompted the governor to impose tighter restrictions.

The November 16 restrictions included a stay-at-home order, the closure of non-essential businesses, and the prohibition of indoor dining. Only three days after the governor’s order, New Mexico saw 3,585 cases — the greatest number of cases in a single day in New Mexico. Despite this spike, the positive effects of the tough restrictions eventually became apparent in the data, both Mourant and Khubchandani point out. It just took several weeks for the restrictions to help bring down case numbers.

“Around Thanksgiving, I think one of the good things we did is to have some restriction on movement of people,” Khubchandani says. In contrast, “many parts of the nation are suffering even now because during Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, there was a dramatic amount of activity exploding into travel.” But in New Mexico, “we saved our people from those kinds of things.”

New Mexico had relatively few total deaths compared to neighboring states (left), but after adjusting for population, New Mexico fared no better than its neighbors (right)

Khubchandani points out that New Mexico’s response to the virus wasn’t perfect. “I think where we fell short, nationwide and maybe in New Mexico as well — in part because we were not the healthiest and the richest state across the nation — is we could not expand testing capacities in time,” he says. “If there were more robust testing capacities across the states, we may have saved some more people from dying.”

Now, vaccine distribution faces similar challenges, Khubchandani says. Accounting for differences in population, vaccine shipments to New Mexico have been comparable to neighboring states, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But vaccine registration rates have been low in some areas of New Mexico. 

The counties with the lowest vaccine registration rates include counties that had the greatest number of total deaths per capita, such as McKinley County, as well as other border counties, such as Lea, Union, and Curry, according to data from the Department of Health. As of March 11 2021, each of these communities have less than a quarter of residents registered for the vaccine. Lea and Union county have less than 11% of residents registered. Santa Fe, Taos, and Los Alamos, on the other hand, lead the state, with registration rates ranging from 58.3% of residents in Santa Fe to 72.3% in Los Alamos.

Overall, New Mexico outranks all other states in terms of the percentage of the total population with at least one dose, according to the CDC. As of March 11, just over 26% of New Mexico’s residents have received at least one dose. Just over 15% are fully vaccinated, according to the Department of Health.

In terms of total percentage of population with at least one vaccine shot, New Mexico leads the pack.

Still, Khubchandani wants to remind New Mexicans that the pandemic isn’t over yet. “The speed at which we are vaccinating people now seems to be getting better,” he says, “and we should celebrate those numbers but also keep an eye on cases.”

“This pandemic has shown that we are all vulnerable; we are social animals. If one of us is affected, the community will be affected,” Khubchandani says. Despite working from home and the shutdown of many public events, everyone in New Mexico is part of a community — and Khubchandani believes residents responded well to the pandemic.

“The people of New Mexico should be given all credit for doing what was best for the community,” Khubchandani says. “They have suffered enormous challenges — social, economic, mental health challenges, and health challenges — but despite that, the communities came together.”

Moving forward, variants of the virus could still pose a threat, he points out. It may be useful to apply the lessons we’ve learned from the past year as we continue battling the virus. 

The past year of data helps show what has worked to keep New Mexicans safe and what hasn’t worked, Mourant says. “Physical distancing, when everybody stays in their house and never sees anybody else, unsurprisingly, works very well,” she points out, “and masking works.” On the other hand, “it looks like opening restaurants tends to greatly increase cases,” Mourant says. “That’s just what the science says,” she adds. 

Even now, with all this data, there are still some uncertainties. When it comes to school closures, for example, it’s still “not clear that having them closed is an improvement over having them open with mitigations,” Mourant says.

Ultimately Jagdish points out that data alone does not tell the whole story. There’s also the political and social side of the story, he explains, and it will likely require a compromise between all three to choose the best path forward.

Friday, KRQE News 13 will hold a livestream discussion at 1 p.m. that will look back on how life has changed in New Mexico since the first case. We’ll also talk about the statistics, politics and emotional effect the virus has had on the state.

Be a Part of Friday’s Conversation…