Mapping New Mexico’s vulnerability to pandemics and disasters

Data Reporting

FILE – This April 5, 2020, photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. After a delay of more than four months caused by the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday, Aug. 5, 2021, that data from the 2020 census used for drawing congressional and legislative districts will be released next week. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – More than half of the population of New Mexico has two or more risk factors that make them “less likely to have the capacity and resources to overcome the obstacles presented during a hazardous event,” such as a pandemic, according to newly released data from the US Census Bureau. Only 16% of the state’s population has no risk factors.

Risk factors — such as low income, unemployment, a lack of health insurance, and pre-existing conditions like heart disease or diabetes — indicate vulnerabilities within a community, according to the Census. And “while the list of risk factors is not exhaustive,” says R. Chase Sawyer, a survey statistician at the US Census Bureau, the factors give a sense of how well a community can recover from a disaster.

This kind of knowledge — the knowledge of which communities are most vulnerable — has already helped guide COVID-19 relief here in New Mexico. Dr. David Scrase, the secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health (DOH), pointed out that using the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index, which is similar to the Census’s measure of vulnerability, New Mexico has “cracked the code in order to get vaccines into the arms of the people who needed them the most.”

“New Mexico has the highest social vulnerability index in America,” Scrase said at an August 11 press conference. And within New Mexico, of course, some counties, such as Luna, Cibola, McKinley, Socorro, and San Miguel, are more vulnerable than others. Yet here in New Mexico, the more vulnerable the county, the greater the percentage of its population vaccinated against COVID-19, according to data from the DOH.

The most recent Census data, originally collected in 2019 and now analyzed by the US Census Bureau, shows that New Mexico ranks in the top ten states for the greatest percent of the state’s population experiencing three or more risk factors. That means we’re likely to have a harder time recovering from the pandemic or other disasters.

We are tied with Texas for having 29.8% of the population experiencing three or more risk factors. Florida and the District of Columbia are even worse. They each have nearly a third of the population experiencing three or more risk factors.


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In many counties across the US, more than 50% of the population has one to two risk factors that might make them more vulnerable to disasters. Data from US Census Bureau.


In New Mexico, Catron, Mora, Sierra, Guadalupe, and McKinley County are among the most at-risk, with roughly 40% of their respective populations having three or more risk factors, the data shows. More risk factors mean an area is less likely to be able to endure all the impacts — the health impacts, social impacts, and economic impacts — of disasters like the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Census. On the other hand, only 18% of Los Alamos County has three or more risk factors, making them more resilient.

In the state, the health impacts of COVID-19 have already disproportionately affected some at-risk communities. The Navajo Nation saw severe impacts from the virus, and the most recent data from the DOH shows that the higher the poverty rate in a New Mexico Census tract, the higher the rate of COVID-19 infection, on average.

The newly released Census data shows that Bernalillo County is in the middle of the pack in terms of vulnerability, with 31% of the population experiencing three or more risk factors that make them less likely to be able to withstand the impacts of a disaster. A little under 10% of the population of Bernalillo County has no risk factors, the data shows. And within Albuquerque, there are areas where around 50% of residents have three or more risk factors.


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Resiliency varies across Albuquerque as some neighborhoods have more at-risk residents. Data from US Census Bureau, UNM RGIS.


While the US Census data doesn’t show exactly which risk factors New Mexico’s residents experience, previous Census data gives some clues. For example, a lack of health insurance is one of the risk factors the Census counts. Here in New Mexico, 12.1% of the population under the age of 65 had no health insurance, according to 2019 data. That’s more than 200,000 people uninsured.

An elderly population also increases a community’s risk. Across New Mexico, there were more than 377,000 residents over the age of 65 living in New Mexico, according to data from 2019, the most recently available count. That means that 18% of the state’s population is above 65, compared to 16.5% of the national population.


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Small Area Health Insurance Estimates

While New Mexico has many residents with no health insurance, a greater percentage of our state is insured than Texas, which had more than 20% of residents under the age of 65 uninsured in 2019. Data from US Census Bureau.


Of course, it’s not only the elderly who are potentially at-risk during disasters and pandemics. Adults and children are also considered at risk if, for example, they live in a household with only one caretaker, according to the Census. And compared to the average of the rest of the US, New Mexico has historically had a higher percentage of households that are headed by a single mother, grandmother, or other female, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Linguistic barriers are also counted as risk factors. In New Mexico, 5.3% of all households are considered “limited English-speaking households,” according to data from the Census’s 2019 American Community Survey. Nationally, 4.3% of households are “limited English-speaking,” meaning that all members of the household over the age of 14 have some difficulty speaking English.


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Several counties in New Mexico have relatively high numbers of limited English-speaking households. Data from US Census Bureau.


Now, David Morgan, a spokesperson for the Department of Health, says they are continuing to focus COVID-19 prevention efforts on the most vulnerable within New Mexico. “Our community health worker outreach has made a tremendous difference in some of the most remote parts of the state in which community health workers (aka promatoras) armed with tablets and hotspots have gone door-to-door and home-to-home to speak to people face-to-face about the vaccine, its safety and the difference it makes in protecting people from serious illness and death.”

“We will keep on working on this,” he told KRQE, with the long-term goal to “build the foundations for improving health equity for groups that have been disproportionately affected by COVID and other illnesses.”

While the data shows some communities are more at-risk than others, the COVID-19 delta variant affects all communities, even those with fewer vulnerabilities. “The virus has evolved into a new, more infectious virus that spreads up to four times more rapidly [than the original variant], to four times as many people,” Dr. Scrase from the DOH told New Mexicans in an August 17 press conference. “Please get tested. Please get treatment if you’re positive, and I think everyone should be careful indoors. No matter what county you live in, at this point, it’s a high-risk environment.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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