BA.4 and BA.5 variants account for more than half of New Mexico’s COVID-19 cases

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico is once again considered a COVID-19 hotspot, with rising cases in almost every county, but state health officials said they were not alarmed by the spike.

During a virtual update Thursday, acting secretary Dr. David Scrase said the state is paying less attention to cases now, and more attention to hospitalizations and deaths. Those numbers are decreasing.

Dr. Scrase said death rates fluctuated with different variants, but it appears fewer people are dying from the newer, dominating variants. The state also reported fewer hospitalizations from COVID-19 and a decrease in the use of ventilators, from 20% toward the beginning of the pandemic, to less than 6% now.

Officials attributed the progress to more New Mexicans, of all ages, getting vaccinated, boosted, taking COVID-19 tests and treatment, but also the natural evolution of the virus.

“So bad news and good news, but exactly what we’d expect: the virus actually wants to live with us,” Dr. Scrase said. “So it evolves over time, to more easily infect people, but it reduces the number of people who are killed.”

Now, with dozens of evolutions of the virus, health leaders are seeing more breakthrough cases but fewer hospitalizations and deaths. Dr. Scrase said the BA.4 and BA.5 variants account for more than half of New Mexico’s current COVID-19 cases. He also said these strains are less severe than ones that came before it.

Dr. Scrase said the country is dealing with a different pandemic now, compared to 2020. With vaccines and medications, he said there is no need to bring back restrictions and mask mandates.

He also said we are on a path to eventually treat COVID-19 like the flu. Before that can happen, death rates from the virus need to drop even further than they have recently, and the virus needs to become seasonal.

“I would welcome the day, when I can get an annual shot that gets me through the winter, which is the day when Omicron is only occurring in the winter, not the summer, or even two if I had to take it,” Dr. Scrase said.

During Thursday’s update, state health officials also confirmed four cases of monkeypox in New Mexico. Dr. Scrase said testing is done in the state’s own labs and results are sent straight to the CDC for confirmation.

He also said the disease behaves differently than COVID-19, is rarer, and harder to trace back since it can take patients 21 days to manifest symptoms.

“Usually monkeypox starts with a flu-like illness like influenza, with sore muscles, maybe a cough, runny nose, plugged up head and fever in some people, not in others,” he said. “But the key factor, really, is the progression to this characteristic rash often occurs on the hands.”

Dr. Scrase said monkeypox is not airborne. It spreads through physical contact, and there are already treatments and a vaccine available for it. NMDOH ordered 362 doses of that vaccine, which can be used by 181 patients in a two-part series. Officials said they plan to order more in the coming weeks.