State health officials said increased mobility and social contact is helping fuel high case numbers of COVID-19 that continue to strain contact tracing efforts and the state’s health care system.

“New Mexico is back to exactly the level of contact and mobility that we were before the pandemic,” Dr. David Scrase, acting secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, said during a livestreamed press conference Dec. 8.

Scrase said that was based on cell phone data, contact tracing and anecdotal evidence. Early in the pandemic, the state obtained anonymized cell phone data through a Santa Fe lab to gauge how well residents were following social distancing guidelines, one of several states to do so. The state is no longer doing that on a regular basis, however, Scrase said.

“We really don’t monitor it every day or by county any more. It turns out it’s still a good surrogate for human contact,” he said.

Observation is also a hint that New Mexicans are getting out more than a year ago, he said.

“I think most of our lived experience confirms that you go somewhere like Home Depot, it’s just as crowded as it was two years ago and much, much more crowded than it was a year ago,” he said.

Contact tracing has also shown an uptick in the number of contacts and the number of places visited, he said, although contact tracing has become more difficult as the daily number of new cases remains high.

The NMDOH is staffed to contact about 300 people per day, he said. New daily cases have been coming in at more than 1,000 a day since early November, however.

“Frankly, there’s no way we can do contact tracing effectively with a staff that’s set up for 300 cases a day when we have 1,500 cases in a single day,” he said.

“We focus on the cases we just got that day and do the best we can to contact them,” he said.

He acknowledged that factors such as vaccination levels, waning immunity from vaccines and a lack of people wearing masks also contribute to the state’s high case numbers.

Scrase encouraged people to use NM Notify, a cell phone app, to help take the burden off the state’s contact tracers. The app allows a cell phone to use randomly generated ID numbers and Bluetooth connection with nearby phones to determine if the phone’s carrier has been within 6 feet of someone who has reported a positive test in the previous two weeks.

About one-third of New Mexico adults are using the app, Scrase said. He said if double that number use it, it would help notify more New Mexicans more quickly of possible exposure.

Even with the difficulties Scrase said contact tracers are having, he and Dr. Christine Ross, state epidemiologist, said fewer people are wanting or needing the state to contact them.

“A very high percentage of people already know they’re positive because their doctor, their provider, whoever did the test, is also responsible to the state to notify them of those results. That notification is often faster than telling the Department of Health that the test is positive,” Scrase said.

“What we’re finding is that more and more people have the information that they need. They manage that personally between themselves and their provider and they don’t want us in the middle anymore,” Ross said.

People are likewise contacting those they might have possibly exposed on their own, she said.

Hospitals continue to deal with high numbers of patients and low bed availability, Scrase said. 

Although hospitalizations for the virus reached higher numbers during last winter’s surge, Scrase said hospitals are now also dealing with non-COVID patients who are sicker because they delayed care.

That’s resulting in situations where patients who are admitted to a hospital might stay in the emergency department for several days before a general bed or intensive care unit bed becomes available. Recently, one Albuquerque hospital had 65 people waiting in its ER for a hospital bed, while another had 90 people waiting, he said.

“You don’t have to understand or run a hospital to know if you had that many people taking up emergency room beds, you’re not able to see people in the emergency room with emergencies and the system just grinds to a halt,” he said.

Dr. Michael Richards, senior vice president of clinical affairs for the University of New Mexico Hospital, said that facility is experiencing record high volumes of patients and on the morning of Dec. 8 was at 156% of its normal licensed capacity in general beds and 126% of ICU beds.

“This has forced us to focus on essential health care services,” he said.

“We’re focused on ensuring that we’re delivering care for level-one trauma patients, acute heart attack patents, stroke patients, but many of the transfers that we would normally accept under other operating conditions, we’re not able to accept right now,” he said.

Scrase encouraged people to not visit an emergency room or call 911 unless it’s a trauma type of emergency such as a heart attack or stroke, and contact their regular provider or visit an urgent care facility instead.

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