NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – While New Mexico health leaders remain encouraged about a decreasing number of new COVID-19 cases, the state’s mask mandate will remain in place for the foreseeable future. The update came Wednesday during the state’s regular weekly COVID-19 briefing.

New Mexico Department of Health Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase said while he is continuing to feel “optimistic” about the decline in the number of new cases, the state is still concerned about the pressure hospitals are facing. That was one of the key factors highlighted Wednesday amid news of several other states placing expiration dates on their mask mandates, including Oregon, New York, California, Massachusetts and others.

“We don’t really make decisions in New Mexico, for New Mexicans based on what other people are doing in other states, we use our own data,” Dr. Scrase said. “The preponderance of evidence I think is very clear that masks work to prevent the spread of disease, and I think when things cool down in the hospital, we’re planning on rescinding the mask order.”

New York state officials announced it would lift mask orders on Wednesday. California is expected to lift its mask mandate by February 15, followed by Connecticut and Massachusetts which set a February 28 end date for their respective mask mandates. Delaware and Oregon are expected to end their mask mandates by the end of March, while New Jersey is expected to end its mandate on March 7.

“When people talk about their demands to end the mask mandate, I think … that kind of way of thinking really completely excludes the experience of our hospitals in the state, who’ve been in crisis basically for six months now,” Dr. Scrase said. “They’re [hospitals,] sending [me] emails saying, ‘please continue it, whatever we do, because we simply can’t have more cases.'”

Scrase presented data Wednesday showing New Mexico’s per-capita COVID case rate stands around 97 cases per 100,000 people. That’s roughly three times what New Jersey and Connecticut are currently averaging.

“We have slightly higher hospitalizations rates than most of the states [that have announced changes to mask mandates] however, we have a lower number of hospital beds,” Dr. Scrase said. He also highlighted the number of traveling nurses and healthcare workers that remain working in various hospitals around the state. This week, New Mexico is paying for more than 400 traveling healthcare workers, while two of the state’s largest health systems in Albuquerque have brought in an estimated “over 1,200” additional healthcare workers, according to Scrase.

“Believe me, nobody wants to end [the mask mandate] more than I do, but we have to use the science and we have to use the data we have for New Mexicans, and the data we have about masks as well,” Dr. Scrase said. Built into the state’s current public health order, New Mexico’s mask mandate is currently slated to end on March 4, 2022 if the health order expires without being renewed. There’s no indication, so far, if the state will do that.

New Mexico’s omicron-fueled case surge which peaked in late January has now been in decline for around two weeks. According to an NMDOH report published Monday, February 7, in the week from February 1 through 7, the state reported 13,432 new COVID cases. That’s down from the prior week’s report, published January 31, which reported 26,844 new COVID 19 cases from January 25 through 31.

An NMDOH report published Monday showed 370 people were admitted to New Mexico hospitals for COVID-19 between February 1 through 7. That’s down from 430 people reportedly admitted to New Mexico hospitals for COVID-19 between January 25 and 31.

Meanwhile, the state’s health data suggests the omicron variant is impacting more children. During Wednesday’s news conference, Dr. Scrase said while death rates and hospitalizations are very low in kids, the top pediatric age group with omicron today remains kids aged 12 to 17 years old.

“In kids, over 87% of kids are symptomatic now,” Dr. Scrase said. “They use to lag behind adults but now they have caught up with omicron.”