NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – After forecasting “cautious optimism” for a lessening number of new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico last week, state health leaders had a more grim forecast in a news conference Wednesday, seeing a continued high number of new COVID-19 cases in New Mexico. Coupled with 1,444 new cases recorded Wednesday, the state is also dealing with its highest number of hospitalizations in 2021, a number not seen since January.

687 people are in New Mexico hospitals with COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Highlighting a dire situation in some facilities, New Mexico Department of Health Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase called the issue at the University of New Mexico Hospital the “biggest challenge” UNM as ever faced in its hospital system.

“(On Tuesday, of) two of our hospitals in Albuquerque, one had 65 people waiting in the emergency room for quite some time to get a hospital bed, another (hospital had) 90 people waiting,” Dr. Scrase said during the news conference. “If you have that many people taking up emergency room beds, you’re not able to see people in the emergency room who come in with emergencies and the system just almost grinds to a halt.”

The weekly update comes as New Mexico recorded 11,277 known new COVID-19 cases over the last week, between November 30 and December 6. In an effort to highlight “how bad it is” in New Mexico hospitals, state leaders brought UNMH Senior Vice President for Clinical Affairs Dr. Michael Richards to the news conference Wednesday to describe the facility’s patient load.

Story continues below:

“When we look at UNMH in particular, the number of patients seeking care in the overall adult census has continued to grow consistently since April 2020,” Dr. Richards said. “This morning our capacity was at 156% of our normal, licensed operating capacity for the adult beds, and we were at 126% of our normal ICU capacity.”

Dr. Richards says in response, UNMH is implementing more types of delays to patient care. The hospital is not accepting many transfers into its facility. Dr. Richards says UNMH is also only doing surgery on patients that is required within two weeks. For patients that can wait longer, the hospital is postponing care for between 30 and 90 days. UNMH says its also reassigning some medical professionals including surgeons, anesthesiologists, residents and house officers to help provide care in other areas of the hospitals. Dr. Richards says so far, the hospital system is not making changes to its outpatient care.

High Vaccination Rates & High Case Loads

According to CDC data, New Mexico is seeing one of the highest levels of COVID cases in the country along with Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island. Addressing a question over how New Mexico ranks among the top 15 states in vaccinating its total population while seeing some of the highest case rates, state health leaders still contend the majority of COVID cases are among the unvaccinated.

State data shows between November 8 and December 6, 2021, New Mexico saw more than 37,879 documented COVID-19 cases. Of those cases, 25.9% or 9,975 cases were among vaccinated individuals. 74.1% or 28,804 cases were among the unvaccinated.

“We still think that the fuel for this fire, our case counts, is unvaccinated individuals,” Dr. Scrase said. “There’s no question that three out of every four (new COVID cases) are (among) unvaccinated (people,) so in a state where 75% of people are fully vaccinated, three out of every four amongst the 25% (unvaccinated) is higher than it looks at first-blush.”

Dr. Scrase said he also believes others factors contributing to the case count include compliance with indoor mask rules, which he said is “low and has become political.” Other factors he said may include the possibility of the seasonality of the virus.

“Last year (2020) on December 9th, the hospitals told me it was the worst day in the history of their hospitals,” Dr. Scrase said. “This year, they told me that on December 7th, but we don’t know enough to know whether seasonality is an issue here or not.”

Booster Progress, New Requirements

On the lines of encouraging booster shots, Dr. Scrase said state data suggest the risk of vaccine breakthrough cases is four-times higher for people who are vaccinated prior to June 1, 2021, and who have not received a booster shot. Helping get more booster shots out in public, New Mexico is getting four FEMA mobile vaccines vans back in the state. The buses will be assigned to each of the four regions of the state.

“They’ll be able to get to places where you want to ask for,” said Dr. Laura Parajon, deputy director of NMDOH. “We’ve asked them to come and help out, so they’ll be here in the next few weeks.”

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced new requirements for booster shots last Thursday. Part of the state’s latest health order, the change effectively requires workers in higher-risk environments like health care, congregate care settings, public schools, and state employee to get booster shots.

To be eligible for a booster vaccine, a person must be six months out from their second shot of Moderna or Pfizer’s MRNA vaccine, or two months out from there single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine. New Mexico has opened up booster eligibility to all people 18 and older. The state has seen a 10% increase in the number of booster shots given out in the last week compared to the week prior.

Leading the state’s vaccine charge, NMDOH Deputy Director Dr. Laura Parajon said Wednesday the state has added more booster shot clinics in Albuquerque and Santa Fe next week. In Albuquerque, EXPO New Mexico (the state fairgrounds) will begin holding daily booster vaccine clinics at the Dairy Barn on site. The state has also arranged for booster clinics at the Santa Fe County Fairgrounds on Saturday, December 1 and at Buffalo Thunder Hotel & Casino north of Santa Fe on Wednesday, December 15.

New Oral Anti-Viral Drugs Soon

As the federal Food and Drug Administration is expected to approve a new oral therapeutic, anti-viral drug shortly, New Mexico is expected to receive thousands of doses. The drug from Merck, Molnupiravir could be approved by next week.

New Mexico is expecting to get as many as 400 treatment courses by early next week. Dr. Scrase says those drugs will likely be prioritized for distribution to New Mexico counties that are unable to administer monoclonal antibody treatments, which are done through an IV infusions. Counties that are expected to receive the first doses of the oral anti-viral drug include Valencia, Torrance, Hidalgo, Mora, Catron, Harding, De Baca and Cibola counties.

“This only works if you take it within five-days of when your symptoms started,” Dr. Scrase said. “Doctors and other providers will be asked to write the date the symptoms started when sending in the prescription.”

Omicron Variant Remains Undetected

The omicron variant remains undetected in New Mexico, while twenty other states, including Colorado have sequenced the new variant of concern. According to NMDOH State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross, the variant is concerning because the virus has over 50 mutations, many of which are sitting on the spike protein.

The spike allows the virus to attach, enter and infect human cells. Other worrisome evidence out of South Africa indicates the omicron variant is possibly more transmissible than other strains.

“We don’t have reason to believe that the vaccine will not allow you to remain highly protected against serious illness and disease or death, so our best tool in the tool box remains vaccination,” Dr. Christine Ross said. “Again, as new information emerges about this variant, we will share it as soon as we have it.”