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NMDOH holds July COVID-19 update as BA.5 variant becomes dominant strain in the US

New Mexico's community transmission map
New Mexico's community transmission map

The New Mexico Department of Health held a monthly COVID-19 briefing Thursday, as the state surpassed 8000 COVID-related deaths and the BA.5 subvariant of COVID now accounts for an estimated 65% of all cases in the county, according to the most recent data for the CDC.

Acting Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said on Thursday that the state will more than likely follow the national curve when it comes to rate of infections due to the BA.5 variant.

Despite this, Scrase said he was optimistic that hospitalizations have plateaued over the past month and deaths are not as high as they were during previous deadly surges.

“It appears that the combination of the evolution of the virus and the preventive and reactive measures we are taking to the virus when we all get sick, is working and much, much less serious disease now than we’ve seen in the past.”

While the seriousness of the disease may be lessened, the amount of community spread seen throughout New Mexico still remains high. According to the CDC’s COVID Data Tracker, all but two counties in New Mexico had high rates of community transmission between July 7-13. That calculates out to 15-19.9% of tests conducted through July 11th coming back positive.

The CDC classifies any county that experiences 100 or more cases per 100,000 people or a positivity rate of 10% or higher as “high” rates of community transmission. This also doesn’t take into account the number of people testing positive at home, the actual number of infections could be at least three to four times higher according to Scrase.

The higher rates of infection are a trade off from more devastating disease and an example of the virus adapting to live among us, Scrase says.

“The virus actually wants to live with us. So, it evolves overtime to more easily infect people, but it reduces the number of people who are killed. And that’s what we’d normally see in any kind of viral spread or pandemic is that slight decrease in the severity of illness, but an increase in infectiousness.”

In terms of vaccine and treatment effectiveness against the BA.5 variant, Scrase said it is resistant to some COVID treatments, such as monoclonal antibodies, but antiviral drugs remain effective.

Scrase said he doesn’t know for sure if it is resistant to vaccines, but did note that they are seeing more breakthrough cases.

Given the infectiousness of the new BA.5 subvariant, and the number of breakthrough cases the state has seen, Scrase was asked what next steps the NMDOH was considering to negate this next possible wave of infection and if a mask mandate was being considered.

“We’re not having any discussions about mask mandates anymore, that was for the pandemic we had two years ago and not for the one we’re having now.” Scrase said. “I think we’re considering continuing to encourage all New Mexicans to do their part to prevent the spread of the virus.”

Scrase explained that doing your part includes staying home when you are sick, getting vaccinated, seeking treatment if you’re sick, and wearing a mask if you feel the need to.

“I think we’re relying on New Mexicans to use their own good judgment to protect themselves and their families and not any specific direction at this point in time from the Department of Health.”