As people around the country debate the costs and benefits of lifting shelter-in-place orders and reopening, public health officials in Rio Arriba County maintain that residents need to continue staying home and keeping their distance.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt said when asked about re-opening.
She said she is concerned about the states around the U.S.–including nearby Colorado and Oklahoma–that are beginning to lift stay-at-home orders.
New Mexico could learn from the other states how much infection rates rebound, and after what type of contact, as different states are reopening different sectors of their economy and social lives, she said.
“My advice to New Mexico is to wait until we get data in from these other states,” she said.
She said her department is looking to implement long-term infrastructure for coping with infectious epidemics, as another public health crisis is not an unlikely possibility.
“If once we do re-open, I’d like there to be a kind of a switch, so that if we go into another public health emergency, without having to reinvent the wheel, we know exactly how we’re operating, and we’re switching to telehealth and other mechanisms and it flows smoothly next time,” she said.
County Fire Marshal Alfredo Montoya, who has been overseeing the County’s emergency response to the crisis, also mentioned the importance of implementing long-term preparedness measures, especially since there is currently no vaccine for the virus and it will likely take months to develop one.
When the County does eventually re-open, it will have to occur gradually, with as much continuous social distancing as possible, he said.
Before that can happen, though, there needs to be much more widespread testing of the population, he said.
“There needs to be a huge increase in the amount of tests that are being done, and how quickly are they being processed,” he said.
He said that despite the fact that the Department of Health opened a testing site at the County Health Commons, very few County residents are showing up to be tested.
As of Tuesday evening, 974 tests have been performed in Rio Arriba, according to the Department of Health website, which is fewer than the number of tests performed in neighboring counties: 1,060 in Taos, 3,844 in Santa Fe County, 3,206 in San Juan and 5,543 in Sandoval County.
Fourteen people in the County tested positive by Tuesday evening. Seven of the people were women, and five were men. For two people the gender was not specified.
Three of the people were aged 40 to 49, six were aged 60 to 69 and five were aged 70 to 79.
Presbyterian Communications Manager Amanda Schoenberg wrote in a Tuesday email that one person is currently hospitalized with the virus in Española Hospital.
Steve Jenison, who served as the acting deputy secretary of health for New Mexico from March 13 to April 23 and is the rescue chief of the Dixon Fire Department, said the low rates of infection in the County, and the low rates of hospitalization, are reasons for cautious optimism.
“But we still are at a point in the pandemic in New Mexico where it is entirely possible that areas of the state that haven’t yet been affected still could be,” he said. “Not to say that’ll happen, but it’s a possibility.”
Like Montoya, Jenison also emphasized how important more widespread testing will be if the County and the state are to reopen safely.
He said he would like to see more testing for people who come into frequent contact with others, including grocery store workers, health care workers, power company employees and first responders, and also throughout more areas in the state, to better determine how the virus is spreading.
The state is moving in that direction.
New Mexico’s federal congressional delegation announced Tuesday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is awarding the state over $6.6 million to expand testing and contact tracing.
“We cannot rebuild our economy or return to normal life safely without drastically expanded testing and contact tracing across the country,” Sen. Tom Udall stated in the release. “Thanks to our state leadership, New Mexico has been out in front on testing, and this $6 million in funding in addition to resources included in the recently passed interim COVID-19 relief agreement will help our state’s public health department operate at the needed capacity.”
Jenison said the Department of Health may begin to perform serology tests on populations throughout the state.
A serology test is a blood test that determines whether antibodies that would fight the virus are present in a person’s bloodstream. Their presence indicates that the person has had the virus.
Serology testing cannot detect the presence of the virus early on, before a person has developed antibodies, as the COVID-19 tests can, and thus they do not aid in the prevention of transmission as much as COVID-19 tests do.
But they can be processed much more quickly and in regional hospital labs, unlike the COVID-19 tests, which require more sophisticated labs, and they can help demonstrate how a virus has spread through a community, especially given the fact that not everyone is receiving COVID-19 tests and some people with the virus are asymptomatic.
“The serological testing will help you get a bigger picture, a more complete, more detailed picture of what’s going on in all the areas where you have to decide what strategy will be used to open it up,” Jenison said.
The state’s early and swift action has contributed to its success so far, he said.
“I think the fact that we did socially distance and did extensive testing has made a difference,” he said. “So then you want to keep thinking about if those things go away, if social distancing goes away, what’ll happen then?”