Just as in science fiction movies where the threat is stealth-like, the world has found itself in a real time state of high alert. But, in 2020, it’s not science fiction and the threat---an invisible but fatally powerful microbe---is here and with a vengeance. It’s everywhere, exacting a toll in the biggest cities and the smallest towns and there is no better example than the Colorado-New Mexico border where COVID hangs like a fog.
“It’s a once in a lifetime pandemic,” said Matt Beiber, Director of Communications for the New Mexico Department of Public Health. “That will give some sort of scale of the challenge we’re facing…Every aspect of society has been impacted by the virus.” The state has so far passed the 130,000 mark on infections and has recorded more than 2,100 deaths from the virus.
Across the United States, the CDC reports that more than 17 million cases of Coronavirus have been recorded and more than 317,000 deaths have occurred. In recent weeks, the CDC said more than 3,000 are dying each day from COVID-19. Worldwide, more than 76 million cases have been counted resulting in more than 1.6 million deaths.
New Mexico state health reports the highest number of COVID-19 cases since the virus struck early in the year. “Basically,” said New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, “the whole state is red,” referring to the highest category of incidents. Only one of New Mexico’s counties did not report an increase in cases. Wholesale restrictions on business and public gatherings have been ordered. Vaccines have arrived and immunization of priority groups, including front line workers and high risk groups have already begun.
One of the hardest hit communities is New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, which includes parts of northeast New Mexico’s San Juan County and borders on Colorado. It has ordered a three-week lockdown requiring all residents to remain at home with the exception of essential workers, emergencies or to obtain food, water, and medicine. Governor Lujan Grisham, said Beiber, has committed to providing the Navajo Nation “all the support they need.”
An hour north and across the state line into Colorado, the end of the year has also produced the biggest healthcare challenge in months, said Claire Ninde, spokesperson for the San Juan Basin Public Health Department. “November (COVID-19) case counts increased dramatically in both counties (San Juan and Archuleta),” she said. A three-week end-of-the-year spike surpassed more cases “than had been seen for the previous eight months.” State-mandated restrictions on business and large gatherings have slowed the increase and “daily case numbers have been declining.”
What is not declining are “hospitalizations and utilization of healthcare, especially intensive care,” said Liane Jollon, SJBHD Executive Director. Despite the strain on healthcare facilities, including intensive care, Jollon said what the health department is doing is working and with the public following the best guidelines for preventing infection---wearing masks, washing hands regularly and avoiding unnecessary gatherings---“we can get through the rest of this winter and reopen businesses and schools safely as soon as possible.”
Both counties, with a combined population of 70,000, are heavily dependent on tourism. Through the warm months, they’ve managed a degree of normalcy with close to normal hotel and motel occupancy and sales taxes holding steady. But the late spike is changing things. “Many of our businesses are hanging on by a thread,” said Jollon. The case count slowdown may ease restrictions and allow a slight move toward commercial normalcy.
Vaccines began arriving last week and priority inoculations have begun starting with “our most vulnerable community members,” said Jollon. But holiday gatherings---super spreaders---remain a serious concern. Should gatherings result in more cases, it could affect the restart of in-person school. SJBHD is cautioning the community to forego large New Year’s Eve gatherings and celebrations.
Health agencies from both states are urging everyone to be vigilant and stressing that no one is beyond the reach of the virus. “We’re all within a degree or two of this virus,” said Beiber. “It is a strange reality to live in.”
Colorado has surpassed the 300,000 mark for confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 4,400 deaths have been attributed to the disease. In New Mexico, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases sits at 130,000 with 2,100 deaths.