NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Following the rise and fall of the omicron variant, the state’s top doctor is now suggesting that New Mexico is entering what may be a sustained shift in the role government plays in the response to COVID-19. Addressing the media during a weekly update Wednesday, New Mexico’s Acting Secretary for the Department of Health Dr. David Scrase suggested New Mexicans now have a choice in deciding how to keep themselves safe in dealing with COVID-19.

“[The choice and responsibility] of how to keep ourselves safe, our families safe and our communities safe has moved from state government to the individual,” Dr. Scrase. “Some people are certainly very glad to have the responsibility and other people are puzzled on how to work through that.”

Wednesday’s news briefing marks the first since New Mexico announced it would drop its indoor mask mandate during the Governor’s news conference on the legislative session last Thursday. The mask mandate remains in-place for hospitals, congregate care settings, nursing homes and correctional facilities, however, school districts and businesses are now being asked to make their own decisions on if they’ll keep mask requirements.

“I think all the recommendations are still good: be aware of your own risks, be aware of the risk in the community, dress appropriately,” Dr. Scrase said. “If there are more cases in your community or you’re more vulnerable, those folks should take extra precautions.”

New Mexico has seen a more than 37% decline in COVID-related hospitalizations over the last two and a half weeks according to Dr. David Scrase. On Tuesday, New Mexico reported just 351 patients hospitalized with the virus, a number that hasn’t been charted since October 2021, before the delta variant began surging in the state.

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In a recent interview with KRQE News 13 featured on this week’s episode of the New Mexico News Podcast, Dr. Scrase said New Mexico has also recently increased its supply of COVID-fighting oral therapeutic drugs and a new monoclonal antibody treatment to help keep COVID-positive patients from being hospitalized. “For me, that’s kind of what flipped my switch to say we can do this [end the indoor mask mandate] now,” Scrase said.

According to a state report published Monday, New Mexico recorded a total of just 172 hospitalizations for COVID-19 in the past seven days, between February 15 and 21, 2022. That’s down from 249 total COVID-related admissions in the week prior, between February 8 and 14.

Wednesday, Dr. Scrase emphasized the “pandemic is by no means over,” citing continued “high” case counts. However, Scrase said at this point, the state is continuing to step away from mandates.

“In my view, and in the view of many, many strongly worded emails I get, people feel like the state is in a position now to transfer the responsibility for decision making about personal interventions and protections for one’s own self, family, community, to individuals and away from the state,” Dr. Scrase. “While I’m not a particularly political person, I do actually agree with that perspective.”

As the state has relaxed its indoor mask mandate, it’s also making a public push for immunocompromised people to get a fourth shot of the COVID vaccine. On Monday, the NMDOH sent out text messages and emails to around 75,000 New Mexicans registered through the state’s COVID vaccine portal, urging them to get a fourth dose per CDC guidelines.

On Wednesday, another 40,000 text messages and emails went out to immunocompromised individuals, urging the use of KN95 or N95 masks indoors and eligibility for a fourth dose of vaccine. Dr. Scrase also suggested Wednesday that immunocompromised people talk with their doctor about “Evusheld,” (pronounced “ev-you-shield”,) a new drug on the market that’s sometimes referred to as a “long-acting antibody” treatment that can be taken as a prophylactic, or a preventative measure to COVID.

“[Evusheld] is a longer acting monoclonal antibody that, in scientific studies, bolsters the immunity of the immunosuppressed,” Dr. Scrase. “It’s an effective treatment that will dramatic lower the risk of getting COVID.”

The state says it currently has far more inventory of the Evusheld treatment than it is giving out on a weekly basis. As of last week, at least 1,592 doses were available in New Mexico. Just 310 doses were given out.

According to the CDC, people are considered to be moderately or severely immunocompromised if they have:

  • Been receiving active cancer treatment for tumors or cancers of the blood
  • Received an organ transplant and are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • Received a stem cell transplant within the last 2 years or are taking medicine to suppress the immune system
  • Moderate or severe primary immunodeficiency (such as DiGeorge syndrome, Wiskott-Aldrich syndrome)
  • Advanced or untreated HIV infection
  • Active treatment with high-dose corticosteroids or other drugs that may suppress their immune response

Responding to concerns from the immunocompromised population Wednesday and the removal of the indoor mask mandate, Dr. Scrase said, “what I say to immunosuppressed and other high risk individuals is we care about you. He pointed to the messages the state is sending to immunocompromised individuals through the state’s vaccine portal and how the state has reached out to providers about vaccines for the immunosuppressed.

“This is not about requiring all New Mexicans to wear a mask until we don’t have anymore vulnerable people,” Dr. Scrase said. “It’s about trying to time the decision the best we can.”