NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – As New Mexico is reporting nearly 2,000 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday, state health leaders say a record number of people are being hospitalized with the virus heading into December. At least 643 patients were receiving COVID treatments in New Mexico hospitals Wednesday, as state health officials updated the latest COVID-19 trends in a virtual news conference.

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Wednesday’s briefing covered booster and kids vaccine administration, the omicron variant, changes to vaccine requirements, and caseloads amongst the state’s aging population. It marks the first update from health leaders in roughly two weeks, since before the Thanksgiving holiday. On Wednesday, New Mexico reported 1,887 new COVID-19 cases, 12 additional deaths and 643 hospitalizations.

Wednesday’s reported virus-related hospitalizations reported Wednesday marks the most hospitalizations for the virus in 2021 so far, according to information provided by NMDOH Acting Secretary Dr. David Scrase. During the news conference, Dr. Scrase highlighted Monday’s lesser number of 633 hospitalizations as the most the state has charted in 2021, shortly before the latest numbers were released.

In Albuquerque, Presbyterian and the University of New Mexico Hospital reported Tuesday their respective hospitals were at 120% and 140% capacity. Presbyterian says roughly 28% of their current patient load is in the hospital for COVID-19 treatment, an increase from about 20% in the weeks prior. Of those hospitalized, Presbyterian notes 85% of those patients are not vaccinated.

Over the last month, state totals show 79% of those hospitalized with COVID-19 are unvaccinated. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, cases are rising in every age group, but they’re rising higher in age groups from 5 to 17 and 65 and older.

Booster Doses, Kids Vaccines Ramping Up

While hospitalizations are on the rise, so too are booster doses which are now open to everyone 18 and older in New Mexico. Since August 1, 2021, New Mexico has dolled out more than 370,082 COVID-19 vaccine booster doses, running ahead of the national average.

The latest data shows more than a 15% increase in the number of boosters given out in the last week, compared to the week prior. However, the state says it’s running into issues in finding places for larger vaccination clinics and smaller providers.

“As we move into the booster phase of this, COVID vaccination really should start taking place in doctors and nurse practitioners and physician assistants’ offices,” said Dr. Scrase. “One of our critical shortages right now facilities in which to give vaccinations … particularly in Santa Fe, Española, Albuquerque, Las Cruces, if you know of a facility that you would like to volunteer that we could use particularly for a mass vaccination site, for a day, or a day a week, or every day for that matter, please let us know.”

In the realm of vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11, the state said it was “on track” with its projections on how many doses would be given out to the youngest eligible age group. More than 30,246 doses of Pfizer’s vaccine have been given to New Mexico’s kids aged 5 to 11 as of Wednesday. There are 188,866 kids ages 5 to 11 in New Mexico.

Meanwhile, NMDOH’s State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross says the younger age groups between 0 to 4 and 5 to 17 years old remain an “area of vulnerability.” “We definitely have a ways to go and hope to see continued uptake of vaccination in that age band and then we’ll see a decreased burden of disease in those school-aged kids,” Dr. Ross said.

Changes to Vaccination Requirements Soon

Dr. Scrase acknowledged New Mexico health officials are nearly ready to announce new requirements related to full vaccination and booster doses. During Wednesday’s news conference, Dr. Scrase said the state would keep the federal definition of “fully vaccinated,” meaning two doses of Pfizer or Moderna’s mRNA vaccine or one dose of Johnson and Johnson’s adenovirus vaccine. However, Dr. Scrase said state they will change several worker requirements.

“We will be changing the requirements for health care workers, schools, and state employees to include a requirement for a booster if one is due,” Scrase said those changes would be formally announced in the coming “days.”

Omicron Variant

Federal health officials announced Wednesday the first known case of the new Omicron variant in the U.S. found in the areas of San Francisco, California. New Mexico health officials were reserved about expressing concern on the variant, with local data showing the Delta Variant accounts for almost all confirmed COVID-19 cases. Dr. Ross said the Omicron variant has not been detected in New Mexico to date.

“We don’t have enough information yet on Omicron to declare a new phase in the pandemic or a change in strategy,” Dr. Ross said. “Scientists and various experts are all in agreement that we really need to focus on the tried and true, in other words, the same prevention recommendations hold true right now, and vaccination remains our best tool to protect an individual, a community and New Mexico.”

Declared a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization last Friday, Dr. Ross elaborated on why there’s cause for concern over the variant. “There’s a large number of mutations… which sit in an area called the spike protein, which has raised alarms, basically because where those mutations are sitting, and also because of the sheer number of mutations.”

Dr. Ross said New Mexicans should still be concerned with the Delta variant at this point, noting the case surge New Mexico is currently experiencing has been entirely caused by Delta. “We know that Delta is at least two times as transmissible or contagious, and we think it is a major contributor to what’s happening in New Mexico with this current surge.”

Vaccinated vs. Unvaccinated Life Span

State health leaders presented data indicating a COVID-19 vaccine has helped add as many as 14-years to the average age span of those who’ve contracted the virus. The data is based on the median age of those who’ve died from a COVID-19 infection and their vaccination status. According to state data, the average age of those who’ve died from a COVID-19 infection who are vaccinated is 78.9 years old. Meanwhile, the average age of those who’ve died from a COVID-19 infection who are not vaccinated is 64.9 years old.

“We get lots of questions about why should I be vaccinated and is it really necessary, I’m younger, do I really need it?” Dr. Scrase said. “I like to look at this data and think about the fact that you can add 14 years to your life by being vaccinated if you’re in the unlucky event if you get COVID.”