New Mexico counties in the ‘red,’ virus spread remains high

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s daily count of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been trending down over recent days from the record highs reported earlier this month, but nearly every county remained deep in the red zone Friday as the state was just days away from launching its new “red to green” system for reopening.

State officials announced that the transition will begin next Wednesday to the tiered county-by-county risk system. Counties will be able to shed burdensome public health restrictions as soon as they meet key metrics related to positivity and spread rates within their boundaries.

Only Los Alamos County in north-central New Mexico is anywhere near meeting the benchmarks. All other counties, including the state’s most populous ones, will have significant ground to make up, meaning it could be many more weeks before they see relief.

New Mexico has some of the toughest public health restrictions in place, with closures extending to all restaurants and many other businesses. Essential businesses such as grocery stores are still open but can have only a certain number of customers inside at a time — a restriction that has led to waiting lines.

Face masks are mandatory, gatherings of more than five people are prohibited and there’s no indication when schools will be able to bring students back to the classroom.

“It’s been a difficult year and an especially difficult past month,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “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.”

The Democratic governor was facing a deadline Monday for deciding how to proceed after what state officials termed a two-week “reset” to address spiking COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The current public health order was set to expire Monday, but officials said its provisions will remain in effect until the new framework takes effect.

Under the system, counties where the virus is more prevalent will operate under more restrictive measures while those where spread is suppressed will face fewer restrictions.

The state Health Department maintains an official map displaying each county’s level on its COVID-19 webpage. Red signifies very high risk where average daily cases are 8 or more per 100,000 and test positivity is 5% or greater. Yellow is high risk and green is medium risk.

The map is updated every other week to capture an average over time that more accurately conveys the spread rate, officials said.

When a county fails to meet the benchmarks for per-capita incidence of new cases and average test positivity for a given level, officials said it will begin operating at the next most restrictive level within 48 hours. When a county’s risk level drops on the map, officials said it can immediately begin operating with fewer restrictions.

New Mexico has reported more than 91,850 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. The death toll stands at 1,504, with an additional 35 deaths reported Friday.

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