Scrase: ‘I don’t think anybody’s even talking about’ mask mandates anymore

By: - June 9, 2022 4:30 am

A mask is seen on the ground at John F. Kennedy Airport on April 19, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

Despite rising COVID cases and hospitalizations, New Mexico public health officials are not considering re-implementing public health measures like requiring masks in public places.

In the first Department of Health news conference about COVID in months, Acting Health Secretary David Scrase on Wednesday afternoon dismissed a question about whether the surge in cases is cause for again considering universal masking, which would prevent some people from getting infected.

“A lot of times we get questions like, ‘Well, how bad will it have to get before we go back to mask mandates?’ And you know, I don’t think anybody’s even talking about that anymore — not even considering it, because we have the tools we need to fight the pandemic,” he said in a news conference with reporters.

Officials are not having conversations about mask requirements, he said — it’s not on the table. 

“We seem to be doing really well,” Scrase said.

The seven-day average of daily reported cases in New Mexico has increased from 100 at the beginning of April to 872 on Monday, according to DOH data.

Outgoing State Epidemiologist Dr. Christine Ross downplayed the surge. “There are clearly a lot of COVID infections in our community right now,” she said, “but despite this rise in cases and community transmission levels, hospitalizations, ICU admissions and deaths remain comparatively low.”

The reported deaths are not a complete picture of mortality from COVID, as they only include people who are hospitalized with COVID before they die.

For example, there were 14.9 million excess deaths associated with COVID between January 2020 and December 2021, according to the World Health Organization. Those are deaths not counted or reported by the countries where they happened.

Ross continued by saying that although there is an increase, it is not anywhere near what we saw last winter, driven by the delta surge and then followed by when omicron was first introduced into the state back in the winter.

Still, the weekly average number of cases is nearly 10 times higher than this same time last year, according to DOH data.

Ross highlighted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “community levels” map, which is based on guidance about decreasing stress on the hospital system, not about avoiding COVID in the first place.

“It really focuses in on what we call ‘medically significant disease,’” Ross said.

The CDC’s previous “community transmission level” map shows that on Wednesday, every single county in New Mexico had high or substantial transmission of the virus. That metric would recommend everyone living in those areas to wear masks.

That metric doesn’t even account for the actual case counts, which Scrase said are between three and 10 times higher than the reported numbers, in part because so many use home test kits now. That would mean that the seven-day average DOH reported on Wednesday at 872 cases per day is actually between 2,616 and 8,720.

Scrase also said that COVID “does seem to be getting milder,” which research contradicts.

“I think we’re evolving toward a milder illness,” Scrase said. “So if more people are getting COVID, and they’re not sick and they’re not going to the hospital, that’s actually a good thing, even if we don’t know about it, at least to me.”

This claim has been repeatedly disproven, most recently in May in a study that found excess mortality during omicron was higher than during delta in Massachusetts, and there was more deaths from any cause in the eight weeks of omicron than in 23 weeks of Delta.

“Omicron was not and is not nearly mild enough to shrug off,” wrote one of the study’s authors, Jeremy Faust, an emergency room physician.

Wednesday’s news conference was the first one DOH held about the pandemic since March 11. Scrase said DOH “took this very, very much-needed break while case counts were low, but now they’re back up” and seemed to indicate that more regular updates on the pandemic will return.

“We’re working on some sort of schedule to ensure you have time to get your questions answered,” he said.


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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.