Contact tracing gets challenging as COVID-19 cases surge in New Mexico

Coronavirus New Mexico

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – As coronavirus cases surge in New Mexico, state contact tracers are working around-the-clock to notify and isolate positive cases. However, it’s getting more difficult to pinpoint where people may have contracted the virus.

On Tuesday, KRQE News 13’s Gabrielle Burkhart spoke with the state’s top doctor about some of the challenges the state is facing. “Every family, every person ought to be thinking about what they can do to reduce their risk of infection,” said Dr. David Scrase, Secretary for the state’s Human Services Department.

Dr. Scrase said it’s clear from contact tracing that plenty of people who are testing positive have been out and about lately. “In general, because the average person has been to like 30 different places in the previous 14 days, it’s hard to pin that down,” said Dr. Scrase.

The last time New Mexico saw COVID-19 cases surge, Dr. Scrase said it was clear people limited their outings. However, more people testing positive are reporting a long list of possible exposures to the state.

When someone tests positive for COVID-19, they’re contacted by the state and asked a series of questions. Questions include possible exposures and activities the person attended in the last 14 days prior to the onset of their illness.

According to the state Department of Health’s latest epidemiology report, the highest reported activity at 45% is shopping. The second highest reported activity is visits to restaurants and breweries, then out-of-state travel, and ‘attending other gatherings,’ respectively.

The bottom line, Dr. Scrase said, is that more people are coming into contact with one another. “I think everybody’s looking for a couple of really specific causes we can point to and say, ‘that’s it, let’s fix that,'” explained Dr. Scrase. “It really is that, it’s people being with other people in the same space, breathing the same air. That’s the vast majority, 99% of cases, that’s how it’s transmitted.”

Dr. Scrase said it’s also difficult to measure exactly how many people in the community are wearing masks, and contact tracers don’t specifically ask that question. “I don’t think from a utility point of view, it’s worth adding to the length of that interview, particularly now when we have so many cases,” Dr. Scrase explained.

He explained the priority is identifying and isolating positive cases, to reduce the spread of the virus. Dr. Scrase also pointed out that more than half the people interviewed admit to the state they’ve recently attended gatherings with groups larger than ten people.

“I think we can get this under control, but in the end, it’s gonna be the sum of all of our individual behaviors, and not, you know whatever the new rules are,” said Dr. Scrase. “Because we know that not everybody feels compelled to obey those rules.”

Dr. Scrase said the state is actively negotiating with some out-of-state labs to expand New Mexico’s testing capacity, which he said is needed to keep up with demand.

“Some of those folks we’re talking to use saliva testing,” said Dr. Scrase. “There’s good evidence in medical literature now that saliva is just as effective as that swab that they put way back in your nose.”

Once those lab contracts are finalized, Dr. Scrase said New Mexico should be able to process 3,000 to 5,000 more tests per day.

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