COVID cases now rising across NM in part because fewer people wear masks indoors, LANL scientists say

By: - May 17, 2022 4:30 am

Shoppers wear masks inside the Coronado mall in Albuquerque in late August, 2021. In mid-May 2022, community spread is surging again. Scientists say it's so high is because of “reduced indoor masking.” (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)

Most people in New Mexico are now living in areas with climbing rates of new cases of COVID-19, according to the latest modeling by scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

In the first week of May, nearly 1.5 million New Mexicans were living in counties where there were between 10 and 99 cases per capita every week, along with an accelerating seven-day average growth rate, according to LANL’s COVID modeling report published May 3.

Meanwhile, surges in COVID cases are being reported in Florida and much of the northeastern United States. Overall, the U.S. is recording over 90,000 new cases per day and saw a 20% jump in hospitalizations in the first two weeks of May.

LANL’s model for New Mexico expects most of the cases in the coming weeks to happen in the central part of the state, in and around the Albuquerque metropolitan area, averaging more than 100 cases per 100,000 people each week.

Other parts of the state are expected to flatten out at between 10 and 99 cases per capita per week.

The LANL report says the reason community spread is so high is because of “reduced indoor masking.” New Mexico dropped its indoor mask mandate in February.

High-quality, well-fitted N95s help stop the transmission of COVID, the report states.

Higher cases rates may be caused by an omicron variant evading vaccines more often than the other two strains of omicron spreading through the U.S. Data in New Mexico mirrors those trends, the researchers write.

“Waning immunity is also likely significant to the current rise in daily incidence,” according to the report.

Protection from severe disease and death with a booster shot has declined from around 90% or 95% before omicron down to about 80%, and we don’t have enough data to know whether vaccines are still holding up against some of its variants, according to physician Eric Topol.

“But it’s overly optimistic to think we’ll be done when omicron variants run their course,” Topol writes. “As difficult (as) it is to mentally confront, we must plan on something worse than omicron in the months ahead.”

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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.