COVID cases and hospitalizations rise, while NM health officials remain mostly quiet

What harm would come from the state holding regular news conferences again and taking questions?

By: - June 2, 2022 5:00 am

Nearly all residents of New Mexico were living in areas with high or substantial spread of COVID-19 on Wednesday. (Courtesy of the CDC)

Listen to Austin Fisher’s interview with Julia Goldberg on KUNM:

As the third year of the COVID pandemic drags on, it’s more difficult to get timely, reliable information about viral spread.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New Mexico Department of Health are still using the new pastel green “community level” map, which does not recommend universal masking anywhere in New Mexico.

The previous “community transmission level” map would show nearly all New Mexicans are living in areas with substantial or high spread of COVID, and would recommend universal masking in those areas.

A few days after the DOH switched over to the new metric, it also pulled staff off compiling COVID numbers, and removed or obscured some information in its regular reports on the pandemic.

Proponents of the state’s decision to relax pandemic protections and switch to the new map and metric said at the time that they “reflect a growing wall of immunity” provided by COVID vaccines.

But new variants of coronavirus have managed to get through that wall. While the vaccines are safe and effective, “breakthrough” cases can and do happen, and the latest sub-variants of omicron appear to spread more easily than previous strains.

“With a virus that spreads year-round, is capable of reinfection, and is still evolving rapidly, and with few public protections still in place, we could be facing a future where we all get sick several times a year,” Melody Schreiber writes in the New Republic.

If CDC’s dataset on breakthrough deaths is nationally representative for all of the U.S., then between September 2021 and February 2022 there were as many as 99,512 breakthrough deaths, according to an analysis of the data by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

CDC data show that vaccine uptake in the U.S. steadily increased from 76% in December 2021, to 77% in Jan. ’22, to 78% in Feb. ’22. Meanwhile, the share of adult COVID-19 deaths among vaccinated people spiked from 29% in December 2021, to 42% in January 2022, and 40% in February 2022. (Courtesy of Peterson-KFF Health System Tracker)

Over 10,000 breakthrough deaths occurred in March 2022 alone, accounting for more than four out of every 10 COVID deaths that month, CDC data show.

After the state’s Health Department stopped holding news conferences on the pandemic — the last one was on March 11 — Julia Goldberg, a journalist with the Santa Fe Reporter, started looking at the rate of breakthrough COVID cases each week.

The March 28 vaccination case report showed that there was a higher breakthrough rate for those who had completed their primary vaccination series and had a booster shot than for those who had their primary series but did not have a booster.

The department told Goldberg that as more people get the primary series and booster, state officials expect more vaccinated people to test positive, because it would follow that the proportion of breakthrough cases would go up as a greater proportion of the population got their shots.

So when the department eliminated breakthrough cases from its COVID data reporting, Goldberg was the first journalist to notice. The communications team at the department is responsive to her questions, and works hard to get her answers, she said.

“The epidemiology team determined that it needed to develop updated methods to account for confounding variables (or unmeasured factors) that impact this analysis, such as age, number of comorbidities, and immunosuppression factors,” DOH told her. “This is a universal issue (not specific to New Mexico) and the development of a new approach to more accurately analyze these data is being discussed within the CDC and among other states.”

Goldberg didn’t find the decision suspicious, she said, but thought, “Why would you not tell people? You know people are interested in this data.”

When the Albuquerque Journal picked up on the story three weeks later, State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross told the newspaper state officials removed the data “because it wasn’t a clear indicator of vaccine effectiveness.”

Ross said the pandemic has become more complicated by more people getting reinfected and that the reports needed to be adjusted to accurately reflect risk or vaccine effectiveness.

Goldberg said she expected the four-week data to return to the reports on Tuesday, June 1, but said it will from now on be age-adjusted. The report published Tuesday shows that in the past four weeks, 50% of the COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico were among people who had either two or three vaccines.

“The sense I get is that there’s concern about people overly focusing on breakthrough cases as a data point, because in some way, it sounds like it’s discouraging people from getting vaccinated, or getting a booster shot,” she said. “That’s obviously not true; that’s obviously not a good reason not to get a vaccine.”

But if that is the concern, she said, why not just say that?

“Why not say, ‘We’re happy to give this data, but it’s really important for people to understand that this data in no way means that the vaccines aren’t working’?” Goldberg asked. “And that’s what they said to me — individually and in writing when I asked — but I mean, more like, as a public message.”

She said she is a little confused about the department’s decisions to publish less information about the pandemic. She said it’s strange that they haven’t put out a news release acknowledging rising case rates or flagging CDC recommendations when cases get high.

They did publish a news release about resources for people with compromised immune systems, but they did not connect the two ideas together, she said.

“So, I don’t really understand what is happening, to be honest,” Goldberg said.

‘Situational awareness’

At various times when the N.M. Health Department was holding pandemic news conferences, Dr. Ross would talk about “situational awareness” and the importance of individuals knowing what’s happening in their local county so they can protect themselves.

“I thought that made a lot of sense,” Goldberg said. “But I think people have to work kind of hard right now to be able to have situational awareness. I mean, I feel like I’m working kind of hard, and I know where all the data is.”

Not everyone and their brother have time to call up the Health Department and ask what the epidemiology reports mean, she said.

Without the same level of information from DOH that we had earlier in the pandemic, she said, we tend to revert to relying on anecdotal information.

“Cases are rising, why not have a news conference, and just talk about that, and take some questions?” Goldberg asked. “I don’t know what harm it would cause.”

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.