While state health officials are worried that New Mexico could be headed into another prolonged surge of COVID-19 infections, they aren’t to the point of reimposing public health restrictions or a mask mandate.

But during a remotely held press update July 28, Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase noted that New Mexico’s public health emergency order — which is still in effect, sans the bulk of the restrictions it previously imposed — “automatically” adopts the guidance issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the most recent CDC guidance, several New Mexico counties have “substantial or high levels of community transmission,” meaning that face coverings technically are “required” under the public health order in some indoor public settings for both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham isn’t requiring that everyone mask up again, however, just “recommending” it. Businesses are free to set their own rules.

In a statement released July 28, state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said the state guidance was confusing, and without scientific merit. “And who will really follow this proposal?” he asked.

Although unvaccinated individuals are already supposed to be wearing face coverings whenever they are in an indoor public place, not many appear to be doing so. Just over 60 percent of both San Miguel County and Mora County residents are fully vaccinated. 

Which begs the question: If vaccinated folks are protected to a high degree, even from the Delta variant, why should they take steps to protect an unvaccinated population that clearly doesn’t want, and isn’t asking for, protection?

Because the more infected people there are, the more the virus replicates; and the more the virus replicates, the more it mutates, according to Deputy Health Secretary Laura Chanchien Parajòn, who joined Scrase for the July 28 update.

“At the end of the day it’s a personal choice” whether an adult accepts the COVID-19 vaccine, Chanchien Parajòn said. But “the data is out there, and COVID looks for where it can go — it’s going to the unvaccinated. As it spreads, it causes more variants. Even if you think you’re healthy and doing OK, vaccination is how we can prevent more variants.”

Also, unvaccinated New Mexicans are dying from COVID-19 every day.

Scrase shared a story about a New Mexico couple in their 80s who recently died after becoming infected with the coronavirus.

After the man and woman each became ill, were hospitalized, and then were admitted to intensive care — all in quick succession, one after the other — the man told his doctor, “I guess we should have gotten vaccinated,” Scrase said, adding that both died.

“The pandemic is not over, [and] now it’s getting worse,” Scrase added, pleading for people to seek out the vaccine. “There are still thousands of lives to be saved here in New Mexico.”

While the COVID-19 vaccines available in the United States are effective against the Delta variant, unvaccinated people who become infected are up to 85 percent more likely to require hospitalization, according to data from Scotland.

New Mexico’s hospitalization rate for COVID-19 patients is rising in tandem with increasing daily case counts, Scrase said, but health care resources aren’t stressed at this time.

The state’s overall test-positivity rate has quadrupled since July 1. Scrase said the pandemic curve over the most recent 30-day period looks eerily similar to what it looked like last September — about two months before infections peaked at around 3,000 new reported cases per day. In June, case counts dropped to between 60 and 70 per day; on July 28, the Department of Health reported 329 new infections.

Modeling based on the most recent lab data shows that the Delta variant now accounts for between 75 and 80 percent of infections reported across New Mexico.

That’s a major increase from April, when it represented just “a sliver” of the overall daily case counts, Scrase said, adding that the Delta variant is thought to be so highly transmissible because it carries a much higher viral load than other variants. Vaccinated or unvaccinated, people infected with the Delta variant are more highly contagious. Additionally, vaccinated folks are less likely to know they are infected, but can still pass the virus on to others, according to the CDC.

“If you live in a household with someone with coronavirus, you have more than a 52 percent chance of getting it,” Scrase said. “That used to be 16 percent. We’re also seeing clustering of cases, which is something you’d expect.

“So everyone who was at a party or in a household” where someone is infected with the Delta variant is three-to-five times more likely to become infected, he added. “Does it spread faster? Absolutely, and frighteningly so.”

Chanchien Parajòn said that the Department of Health is currently working hard to reach African American and Hispanic populations who have lower overall vaccination rates than white, Native American and other populations.

Ultimately, though, experts agree that anyone who is hesitant about taking the vaccine is most likely to be persuaded by their physician. Many primary care providers are now equipped to administer COVID-19 vaccines in their offices.

“Health care providers are your number one preferred choice for getting the vaccine,” Chanchien Parajòn said. “All New Mexicans are encouraged to visit their primary care providers and catch up on any care they missed during the pandemic, and to talk about the vaccine.”

Visit or call 1-855-600-3453 to register for the vaccine, schedule a vaccine appointment, download parental consent forms, or to request an on-site vaccination event — all at no cost and without need of health insurance.

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