By SUSAN MONTOYA BRYAN, Associated Press
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico‘s top health official observed a moment of silence Friday in remembrance of the 7,050 people who have died in the state since the pandemic began.
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase marked the two-year anniversary of New Mexico’s first confirmed COVID-19 infections during a virtual briefing with reporters, noting that new infections and hospitalizations have dropped dramatically in recent weeks.
Still, he said COVID-19 is a serious disease and the state is making plans to ensure it will be prepared in the event of another surge caused by a new variant. He described it as a “constant state of readiness.”
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next. We don’t know what to expect for sure but we are getting ready,” Scrase said, pointing to the experience the world had more than a century ago with the influenza pandemic. “You don’t know that it’s over until it’s really over.”
It was March 11, 2020, when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency and ordered most state employees to start working from home. She also urged people to avoid traveling or gatherings to slow the spread of the virus.
Her declaration followed confirmation of the first COVID-19 infections in the state. Officials at the state health lab had worked through the night to make the determination.
As of today, about 1 in 4 New Mexicans have had a confirmed case.
Of the cases reported over the last four weeks, state data shows 56% of infections have been among those who are vaccinated — including those who have received booster shots. Still, the unvaccinated make up higher percentages when it comes to hospitalizations and death.
While more than 78% of New Mexico adults are vaccinated, the effort to push the number higher has all but stalled and less than half of those who are eligible have received booster shots.
New Mexico has lifted many public health restrictions, including its mask mandate for most public indoor spaces. While school districts can set their own mask policies, the only state-mandated mask requirement still in place is for children returning to school after testing positive and isolating for five days.
As of this week, less than one-quarter of the 149 schools and districts that reported data to the state Public Education Department indicated they were still requiring masks. Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said in a statement Friday that he’s delighted that declining infection rates have allowed the state to turn more decision-making over to the districts and charter school leaders.
“We’ve waited a long time — working hard and learning as we went — to get to this point,” Steinhaus said. “My greatest hope is we can continue safely learning and teaching in-person.”
Scrase said New Mexico’s public health order will remain in place as long as the federal emergency designation continues. He explained that people getting federal food assistance or help through other social programs have received more than an extra $1 billion of benefits related to the pandemic.
“We are tied to that federal wagon and will want to maintain those benefits as long as we can,” he said.
Scrase also acknowledged that the pandemic has been devastating for many families but there are still things to be thankful for.
“I think many of us have learned new things,” he said. “Many of us have grown, many of us have changed, many of us have learned to appreciate when we get that time to spend with family.”
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