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New Mexico sees uptick in less severe COVID-19 infections

ALBUQUERQUE – COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in New Mexico, but top state health officials said Wednesday that a return to mask mandates or other widespread public health restrictions are unlikely because infections are becoming more mild.

Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during his first briefing on the pandemic in months that the situation is very different now than it was over the winter. He noted that more tools and treatments are available and that infections are resulting in far fewer hospitalizations and deaths.

“This isn’t about infections. It’s about serious disease, it’s about hospitalizations, it’s about deaths. That’s what we need to pay attention to,” he said of the focus. “... Our deaths are only a fraction, our hospitalizations are only a fraction and that’s really the sticking point for this state.”

The pandemic took a toll on New Mexico early on because of the state’s historical lack of resources, including nurses and its low ranking among states when it comes to hospital bed capacity.

Health care officials and some elected officials promoted the mandates in hopes of limiting infections and preventing the overtaxing of a system already running at full capacity.

Hospitalizations because of COVID-19 infection are currently low and only a small percentage of patients require ventilators, which state officials said means an evolution toward a milder illness from coronavirus infections.

State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross, who will step down from her post in the coming weeks, said it has been a long and difficult public health period but that she was pleased to report what she called a welcomed difference from the severity of previous infections.

“What we’re seeing with this wave is very different than what we’ve seen in the past,” she said, pointing to multiple factors that range from the properties of the latest variant to what she referred to as a wall of protection created by vaccination and immunity resulting from infections and in some cases re-infections.

Health officials acknowledged the difficulty in analyzing data now because many positive infection tests conducted at home go unreported.

While state data showed vaccinated and boosted people made up nearly two-thirds of COVID-19 cases reported over the last four weeks, Scrase said the numbers should not be considered a study of how effective vaccination might be “because there are too many variables.”

With treatments now seen as a game-changer, Scrase said his next hope is that deaths caused by the virus can be prevented.

New Mexico's COVID-19 death toll is approaching 7,900 people, according to state data.