NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – After more than a month of concern about a steep upward trend of new COVID-19 cases amid the spread of the more infectious Delta variant, New Mexico’s top health officials indicated signs of hope for a slowing rate of new infections. The latest data presented in a news conference Wednesday appears to show a “deceleration of growth in new cases,” however, the state believes hospital capacity will remain a concern for at least another two weeks.

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“Although we certainly don’t want to celebrate too early, but I do want to say that we’re happy to see that there is a deceleration of growth in new cases,” said Dr. Christine Ross, the state epidemiologist for the New Mexico Department of Health. “And what you can see is a semblance of a possible plateau there in this small mountain on the far right of the slide.”

Ross and other top state officials including Dr. David Scrase addressed the latest COVID-19 trends during a weekly news conference Wednesday. The state resumed weekly news briefings in mid-August as a surge of new COVID-19 cases was compared to the beginning of the October 2020, when a surge in new cases eventually led to an additional two-week shutdown in November 2020. At that time, the state averaged more than 2,000 new COVID cases a day.

Ross cautioned the recent Labor Day holiday could quickly change the course of new COVID cases quickly though, saying the state could see an impact in case counts “over the next week or so.” However, she said she’s “hopeful” the plateau will turn into a decreasing trend of new cases.

While the number of new cases may be plateauing in New Mexico, New Mexico Human Service Secretary and Acting Department of Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said he remains concerned about the number of available hospital beds in the state. Two weeks ago, Dr. Scrase said the state was likely just “days away” from hospitals declaring “crisis standards of care,” where hospitals may have to deny some patients medical treatment because there are too many patients to care for. As of Wednesday, the state’s four major hospitals, Scrase said were “barely” in the crisis standards of care range.

“We have not had to deny anyone medical treatments,” Dr. Scrase said. “We’ve had very full ICU beds … but we are still managing to move people around the state, move ventilators around the state, move high flow oxygen tubing around the state and move treatments around the state in order to make sure that everyone is still getting cared for.”

Dr. Scrase says the state is still anticipating another two weeks of hospitalization surge. “I’ll still be sitting on the edge of my seat through close to the end of September now until I think our hospital partners and DOH facilities will feel like we’re actually getting out of the wood,” Dr. Scrase said.

State health leaders also touched on the accuracy of their modeling process Wednesday. Through the course of the pandemic, the state has relied heavily on Los Alamos National Lab’s modeling team to help them predict what the pandemic will look like in coming weeks. Dr. Scrase said Wednesday the state’s actual hospitalizations are tracking below LANL’s modeling projections.

“There’s something about our response this time or the Delta variant that we don’t fully understand that has created this change in the shape of the curve,” Dr. Scrase said. “Some of us believe New Mexicans responded more quickly and more of us responded to getting treatment for a positive COVID test.”

Among the various age groups of people contracting COVID-19, state data indicates kids are accounting for more hospitalizations and new cases in recent weeks. Pediatric cases now account for about 24% of New Mexico’s new COVID cases. Throughout the entirety of the pandemic, pediatric cases account for around 16% of the state’s cases. The state says infection rates among children and adolescents aged 5 to 17 years old remained the second-highest through August, topped only by the 18 to 34-year-old age group.

The most concerning COVID-19 metric over the number of deaths is the only one currently going up in New Mexico. Dr. Scrase says the state will likely continue to see weekly death totals between 30 to 40 people through all of September 2021.

Over a four-day span between Saturday and Tuesday, the state registered 2,510 new cases of COVID-19 and 10 more deaths. On Wednesday, the state reported 543 new cases and 15 additional deaths.

Dr. Scrase also highlighted what he said was likely the first death in New Mexico from “someone who took Ivermectin thinking it was a reliable treatment for COVID.” Ivermectin is a drug often used to treat parasites in animals. The FDA says, “ivermectin tablets are approved at very specific doses to treat some parasitic worms, and there are topical (on the skin) formulations for head lice and skin conditions like rosacea.”

In a recent publication, the Food and Drug Administration acknowledged a “growing interest” in the drug being used “for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19 in humans.” However, the FDA says it has “not authorized or approved ivermectin for use in preventing or treating COVID-19 in humans or animals.”

Dr. Scrase said Wednesday the state’s Medical Advisory Team has looked at the drug three times, saying, “we don’t think there’s evidence for it effective in treating COVID in any stretch of the imagination.” Dr. Scrase said the state believes it has now seen one person has die due to ivermectin use, while another is in the intensive care unit due to ivermectin use.

“Some people who I’ve been working with for the whole pandemic who I highly value their opinions have informed me that they had a case in one of their hospitals die from taking ivermectin,” Dr. Scrase said. “The belief is that ivermectin was obtained from a veterinary supply store.”

Dr. Scrase acknowledged Wednesday the state hasn’t arrived on an official cause of death yet. He said isn’t sure if the case will go to the state’s medical examiner, but that it may take a few weeks for final confirmation. “(It was a) reliable source, competent clinicians who really felt that was the cause of death,” Dr. Scrase said about the information shared.