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Lea leads state in positivity rate

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According to the State of New Mexico, Lea County is in the red.

In fact, Lea County leads the red.

On Wednesday, New Mexico started its new county-level public health restrictions to fight the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lea County has the highest positivity rate at 32 percent. That is a daily mark of 128.6 cases per 100,000. Of the 33 New Mexico counties, only San Miguel stands in a different color. The northern New Mexico county is in the yellow tier after having a positivity rate of 5 percent with a daily mark of 32.2 cases per 100,000.

Sitting at around 70,000 residents, Lea County doesn’t come close to the 100,000 residents used to determine the county’s daily mark. Nor-Lea Hospital District CEO David Shaw has been in close contact with New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) officials regarding the virus and understands what state officials are doing.

“So what (NMDOH officials) do is they look at a 14-day time period and look at the cases during that 14-day period and they gross it up to a factor of 100,000,” Shaw said. “So if there is 7 cases in a population of 7 and I’m going to gross that up to a case count per population of 10, that would be a case count of 10 for a population of 10.”

The 14-day time frame used for the initial tiered system is Nov. 17-30. According to NMDOH data, during that 14-day period, Lea County saw more females (54.9 percent) than males (45.1 percent) test positive. The age group with the highest amount of cases is 20-29 years at 905 positive cases. The 30-39 age group was second with 754 positive cases.

To move from the red to yellow tier, Lea County must meet one of two standards – either decrease it’s positivity rate from 32 percent to 5 percent or less, or have no more than eight new cases a day per 100,000 people. To move to the green tier, both standards must be met.

Despite being in the red level, the restrictions will loosen from the state mandated lockdown the state has been under the past two weeks. Golf courses, salons, workout gyms and most businesses can operate at 25 percent occupancy. Restaurants can allow outdoor dining at 25 percent capacity, but any establishment serving alcohol must close at 9 p.m. each night.

Any weekend trips to visit a state park will be allowed to state residents only. Groups must be kept to five people or less. Visitors must show either a valid New Mexico license plate, a New Mexico driver’s license or ID card, a New Mexico vehicle registration, a federal document attesting to residency, or a military ID to be admitted. Wearing a mask or cloth face covering is mandatory in public settings except when eating, drinking or swimming, or unless a healthcare provider instructs otherwise. Violators could face citations and $100 fines for not complying voluntarily.

Getting Lea County to decrease its positivity rate from the state’s highest to it’s possible lowest will take some time, according to Shaw.

“I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but I don’t foresee Lea County – even if we make an all out effort – I don’t see us getting into the yellow or green in the next 14 to 28 days, because (NMDOH) are going to look at it on a 14-day period,” he said on Monday. “We just had reporting that this past Friday to Sunday, I think it was 248 cases. So that runs an average in our county of close to 80 per day actual cases.”

On Tuesday, NMDOH reported Lea County had 105 new COVID-19 cases and two deaths. On Wednesday, Lea County had 98 new cases and three deaths, two males aged in their 80s and one male in his 50s.

The three-tiered system is a change of pace from how Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham originally battled the pandemic. Since the onset, Grisham has gone with a “we are all in this together” technique in an effort to battle the virus on a statewide level. Given that New Mexico is close to reaching 100,000 positive cases since the virus came into the state in March, the statewide approach was changed to the county tiered system.

“The county-by-county framework enables counties, and the businesses and nonprofits within their borders, to operate with fewer restrictions when they slow the spread of the virus and drive down test positivity rates,” Lujan Grisham said in a press release last week. “It’s been a difficult year and an especially difficult past month. We must remain as vigilant as ever to contain and beat the virus; we also must look for ways to lessen the burden on our communities wherever possible, while never swerving from our top priority – protecting New Mexicans and saving lives.”

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Curry County, in eastern New Mexico, has the state’s second-highest positivity rate, at 30.1 percent. Roosevelt County, located to the north of Lea County, sits at 19.6 percent. Eddy County is at 21.1 percent and Chaves County is at 25.4 percent.

Shaw said at the local level, one way to battle the virus is to have Lea County residents limit their need to gather.

“Whether it be funerals, weddings, birthday parties, different things like that where people are getting together,” Shaw said. “Part of that, and I think we have all probably experienced this if we are honest with each other, is we are all social animals to some degree. Some more than others and we want to interact with others. That’s primarily where it is coming from. Some people are not as cautious as they need to be when they are in those kinds of settings.”

As of Wednesday, hospitals in Lea County reported they had 27 patients in the last seven days seeking treatment due to COVID-19. Some of those patients have been discharged, meaning they were sent home. Others may have been transfered outside Lea County for further treatment, remain hospitalized in Lea County or died. In the prior week, Lea County hospitals saw 14 patients over the course of seven days seeking treatment for COVID-19.

Working in a hospital environment, Shaw will be the first to say wearing a mask is not a perfect defense. It gives some level of protection and if people are exposed to someone who has the virus, it can help.

“I have staff in the hospital who are wearing N-95 face-masks, face shields, gowns, breathing apparatuses and we still, from time to time, have individuals become positive because they are around so many people for such a long time who are with COVID-19,” Shaw said. “It has a lot to do with the amount of time we are around somebody protected or unprotected. So it’s usually gatherings that cause increased positive rates.”

Shaw said Lea County residents shouldn’t live in fear of the virus, but it is important that residents take care of one another and practice all precautions.

“They are not a perfect defense, but they do help mitigate the spread and help mitigate the severeness of the illness if you do get sick,” Shaw said. “Your doctors and your hospitals are here to help you and we have the therapeutics. Some are new, but are effective. So, people should not be afraid to go to the hospital.”

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