NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – As New Mexico begins to rollout COVID-19 vaccinations for potentially more than 100,000 kids ages 5 to 11 years old, the state’s top doctor says New Mexico is “definitely headed on another uptick” in new COVID-19 cases. The update came during a weekly COVID-19 news conference Wednesday afternoon, where the state also announced the start of a new school virus testing program aimed at keeping kids in the classroom after exposure to a COVID-positive case.
Assessing New Mexico’s current case outlook, NMDOH Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase said all five regions of the state are seeing an increase in the average number of new COVID-19 cases. “On the total new cases per 100,000 people, we want that below ten, and you can see that only one county, Los Alamos, is there now,” Scrase said.
For the last two months, the state’s weekly news conferences have been dominated by a continued high number of new COVID-19 cases the state has sustained through September and October. On Wednesday, the state announced 1,166 new COVID-19 cases. According to a report publish November 1, 2021, New Mexico saw 6,656 new COVID-19 cases in the week prior.
The continued COVID case numbers are sustaining pressure on New Mexico hospitals. In mid-October, the state formally declared it would enter a “crisis standards of care” status, giving New Mexico hospitals the ability to use a more standardized procedure for making decisions on who receives medical care. Wednesday, Dr. Scrase highlighted the San Juan Regional Medical Center as one of the hardest hit facilities in the state.
“When I say that we have our biggest problem in Farmington, what I’m saying, basically, is that hospital does not have the resources to provide intensive care, general medical care, emergency services for everybody coming in like they usually would,” Scrase said. “Plus, that safety valve that we’ve traditionally had … there aren’t other places (for patients to go) … now we can’t (move people and offload rural hospitals.)”
In response to problems with staffing at the San Juan Regional Medical Center, Dr. Scrase says the state is contracting with 41 health care workers, plus another 36 people through a federal program are expected to head to Farmington in the next couple days. “That will give them additional emergency room staff and nurses and other personnel so that the number of resources they have can at least catch up to demand.”
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Vaccines for kids and booster shots
On the vaccination front, as the federal government has now authorized smaller doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for use in kids ages 5 to 11, the state says its prepared to begin launching several clinics to meet the demand. NMDOH officials confirmed Wednesday they’ve already received around 30,000 doses of the COVID-19 vaccine for kids, and expected to receive a total of 90,000 doses around November 10. Each dose contains one-third the amount of active ingredient compared to the adult dose. According to the guidelines, children who get the first dose would get a second dose 21 days later.
“I’m pretty sure we’ve got Saturday clinics coming up, a week from this Saturday (Nov. 6) in Española, Santa Fe and Las Vegas,” Dr. Scrase said. “I’m pretty sure we’ve got three Albuquerque vaccination events in the next two and a half weeks, as well.”
State health officials also highlighted the continued booster shot roll out Wednesday, saying since August 1, 10 to 12% of New Mexicans 18 and older have received a booster dose – about 172,000 people. Dr. Scrase said he is “happy” with where the state is so far.
“But it needs to turn up and we need a lot more people, remember, New Mexico was first in the United States in our vaccine rate for a really long period of time,” Dr. Scrase said. “It means were first to be due for boosters, I’d love to see a duplication in our past performance with that.”
School Testing Program
New Mexico Public Education Department Secretary Designee Kurt Steinhaus announced Wednesday a new “Test to Stay in School” program, aimed at eliminating the mandatory 10-day at-home quarantine for unvaccinated students and staff exposed to COVID-19 cases in the school. The program is being funded by a 63-million dollar grant from the Centers for Disease Control.
Steinhaus says the program will give every school in the state access to $70,000 to pay for an employee who will be certified to administer tests on school grounds. If a person at a school is exposed to a known COVID-19 case, the student or staff member can stay in school if they are asymptomatic and submit to testing on days one, three and five of exposure. Day one is the first day after exposure is known, while day zero is the exposure date.
“Not only can they stay in school, but they can also participate in all of those sporting activities as well as speech and debate, band, music and theatre, all of those (extra-curricular activities) that make school so exciting for kids,” Steinhaus said. “We want to minimize quarantine times and we want to keep our kids engaged in in-person learning, that’s what this is all about.”
Steinhaus says the program will also allow for kids to continue using school transportation, after-care programs and “out of school time” activities. The program is already in place at several Alamogordo schools, but will take three to five weeks to get up and running at all school who opt-in to the program.
“We all want it to get up and running as quickly as possible, probably the biggest variable is to find a person out there to help do that testing,” Steinhaus said. “We are short over 1,000 teachers, that’s by far our number one priority, but this is finding a person that can be available in school to give the test, to take the training and to be certified. Another variable out there is ordering the tests themselves.”
So far, 63% of districts statewide have signed up to participate in the program. New Mexico has around 425 elementary schools and more than 800 K through 12 schools. Private schools and tribal schools bring the total number of schools in New Mexico over 1,000. The state is planning on utilizing mostly rapid tests for the program, however, Dr. Scrase said Wednesday all testing options would likely be available for schools.