NM COVID surge spurs emergency public health meeting

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At a normal meeting Friday between state health officials and representatives of local and tribal health councils, a hastily changed agenda signaled the urgency of the worsening COVID situation in New Mexico. More than 100 people across the state attended Friday afternoon’s ZOOM call. Despite nearly 74% of New Mexico adults being fully vaccinated, which is relatively high, New Mexico appears headed toward another crisis stage of COVID.

The rolling 7-day average of COVID cases in New Mexico apexed a year ago and waned during spring and summer of 2021, as seen in the image below. But the cases have crept upward since August and now seem to be hitting worrying levels. For example, the rolling 7-day average of cases was 1,233 as of Nov. 11, up from 691 in early October. And on Thursday, the health department announced nearly 1,800 cases and 23 deaths.

But it is New Mexico’s hospitals that are causing worry, Dr. Laura Parajon, deputy DOH secretary, told participants on Friday’s call.

“I want to be clear how dire the situation is,” Parajon said, adding the situation is worse now for hospitals than in 2020. 

That’s because a year ago the state was locked down and hospitals were not performing elective and other medically unnecessary surgeries. That’s not the case in 2021, when more people are hospitalized for various reasons. Because of this, some of the state’s hospitals continue to work over capacity in part because of the nearly 600 COVID patients, a population that could rise to 700 in a matter of weeks.

The recent rise in cases is due to three major factors, according to state health officials: the state’s unvaccinated population, reduced compliance with safe COVID practices and a waning immunity from vaccinations and the Delta variant, which is more severe than previous strains.  The consequences for unvaccinated people are more dire, they are more likely to be hospitalized and die from COVID.

Amid the surge, state officials are continuing to urge people to wear masks, to socially distance, and, now with most adults cleared for boosters, to get vaccine boosters.

During Friday’s call, the importance of local and tribal health councils was on display. State health officials posed questions to representatives that might help the state address the surge:

What can you do to reach out to your network re: current COVID-19 crisis? (email, social media, door knocking, texts, virtual convening like Facebook Live, etc.?

What are your ideas for promoting a vaccination event in your community?

What are your ideas for hosting a new vaccine event in your community?

How else can we slow the spread of COVID-19 in our communities?

If you’ve never heard of or thought about local and tribal health councils around the state, you’re not alone. But they’re important to New Mexico’s public health system, as demonstrated by Friday’s call.

Often described as the boots on the ground or the eyes and ears for the state health department, folks who sit on the local councils are connected to their communities in a way state officials aren’t and can collect information — data, stories, etc. — that helps the state. In turn, they pass along information from the state to local communities. 

No doubt, proximity to what’s happening locally is why the state hastily changed the agenda for Friday’s standing ZOOM call with representatives of local councils. They need local eyes and ears and communicators to help figure out how to best fight the recent surge in COVID that’s straining some hospitals.

This latest phase of the COVID pandemic is hitting New Mexico as advocates for health councils are preparing to ask state lawmakers in January to bolster funding for the local entities. 

Health councils now receive just under $10,000 each per year from the state, but advocates hope to persuade state lawmakers they play a vital role in the state’s public health.

It also comes at a time when state lawmakers await recommendations from a state task force created this year whose charge is to help strengthen the state’s public health system. The state’s understaffed health agency has found itself stretched thin during an ongoing pandemic response and COVID vaccination effort. And the panel is likely to make systemic recommendations, including possibly more money for local health councils, given the roles they play.  

Friday’s ZOOM call might just help send a clear message of how important  local and tribal health councils are, particularly during times of crisis.

People who want to see the latest powerpoint on where New Mexico is concerning the COVID pandemic can find it at nmpha.org. Scroll down to COVID updates from DOH, click on Nov. 19, 2021 and the powerpoint will download.

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