COVID-19

Taos County records most coronavirus infections per capita in New Mexico

State could see more than 3,000 deaths over next 12 months

Posted

Updated April 4 at 4 p.m.

Taos County recorded the most coronavirus infections per capita in New Mexico as of Thursday (April 2), according to data compiled by the New Mexico Department of Health.

During a Friday (April 3) press conference led by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, New Mexico Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, a map showing per capita infections indicated that Taos County currently has 40 infections per 100,000 people. The second highest is in McKinley County, which had 34 infections per 100,000.

That can be a little confusing since Taos County still had only 13 positive cases as of April 3 – far below the highest number recorded in Bernalillo County, which has 202 cases. But Taos County's population is far less than Bernalillo, making the infection rate per capita higher. 

As a tourist destination, Taos County also sees a high number of visitors from elsewhere in the country and the state. But while initial cases of the virus came from the outside, state experts believe continued infection at this stage is more likey due to "community spread," or contact between permanent residents. Per capita infection is a measure used, in part, to gauge a community's adherence to guidelines that can help avoid a spike in cases that can overwhelm a local health care system's capacity to provide care.

In recent weeks, officials at Holy Cross, Taos County and the town of Taos have all acknowledged county residents for doing their part to prevent continued infection, but this week's data tells a different story.

Grocery stores like Smith's, Albertsons and Walmart, continue to see large crowds. Shoppers can often be seen ignoring experts' advice to remain 6 feet apart from other people. Taos County streets continue to teem with traffic that may not actually be essential.

On Friday, Lujan Grisham again urged New Mexicans to adhere to the guidelines set forth in a March 23 order for non-essential businesses to remain closed and to practice social-distancing. New Mexico, experts predict, will see a surge in cases sometime between the middle of April and the first week of May.

Particularly in light of a lack of hospital beds and critical supplies, such as respirator masks and ventilators, the governor said that failing to follow the guidelines could produce a dire situation.

Referencing a chart showing projected hospitalizations and possible deaths from the virus, Dr. Scrase estimated that as many as 3,066 New Mexicans could die over the next 12 months – even with moderate to high levels of intervention, such as practicing social distancing, avoiding gathering in groups of any more than five, keeping non-essential businesses closed and children out of school.

When cases of COVID-19 peak, the department of health estimates there may be roughly 3,498 hospitalizations – with 2,175 people requiring beds in intensive care units and 1,629 people requiring ventilators. Dr. Scrase said those predictions fall short of New Mexico's health care capacity by about 1,281 general hospital beds, 1,586 ICU beds and 1,004 ventilators. As of April 3, about 72 percent of the state's total hospital beds were already full.

"It is true that the state by state effort to go after supplies and equipment is incredibly competitive," said Lujan Grisham, who said it appeared to be unlikely that New Mexico would receive additional ventilators from the national stockpiles to bolster its current supply. "Frankly, it is a system that is not working for anyone anywhere."

She is working with the federal government to create an emergency declaration that would allow the state to call up an additional 750 military personnel to assist in emergency work during the pandemic – such as delivering food, gathering supplies and transporting coronavirus test samples. Deliveries of food and supplies to people living on  reservation land within New Mexico, where fewer stores do business, is particularly important to prevent people from traveling.

A high school in Gallup and Lovelace Medical Center in Albuquerque have been designated as centers to treat a potential surge of patients who don't require critical care, the governor said.

New Mexicans are also being asked to stop buying N95 masks, gloves and other items that are in short supply at health care facilities that are burning through them at higher and higher rates. Secretary Kunkel echoed an anticipated recommendation from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that non-medical personnel begin wearing cloth masks. She added, however, that their efficacy in preventing the spread of the virus remains unclear.

Lujan Grisham said the state is also working to recruit additional nurses from Canada, who, upon arrival, will have to be placed on a mandatory 14-day quarantine – a precaution now required of all travelers from out of state.

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