New Mexico Extends Masking Order As New Cases Trend Downward

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is on the downslope of the pandemic as the number of new infections has started to decline, state health officials said Wednesday during a virtual briefing.

Still, Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said that community spread remains high across the state — surpassing the benchmark of more than 300 cases a day — and precautions need to be taken to ensure more people don't become infected. That includes extending the state’s mask mandate for at least another month in indoor public settings.

The masking mandate had been set to expire Wednesday. New Mexico in May 2020 was among the first states to require that face coverings be worn in public settings. That order was lifted last May for fully vaccinated people.

“As we're coming off this wave, if it continues, we really need to step back and look at what are the things we can do in the long haul to prevent spread of COVID without having to go back and forth with this on-off switch and mandates, what are some things we can all live with,” Scrase said.

Under the current public health order, the mask requirement applies to all people age 2 and older in all indoor public settings, except when eating or drinking. Businesses, houses of worship and other entities may enact stricter requirements at their discretion.

Scrase also renewed his call for people to wash their hands, keep their distance from others and get vaccinated.

The latest data from the New Mexico Department of Health shows just over 69% of residents 18 and older have been fully vaccinated and that vaccination rates are higher among those communities that are considered more socially vulnerable due to poverty, access to health care, language barriers and other factors.

Officials said the state, its medical partners and providers have been working hard to reach those communities.

State data also shows a 37% drop in infections on school campuses in New Mexico compared to the previous week. Public Education Secretary Kurt Steinhaus said the agency will be keeping an eye on the numbers over the next two to three weeks to see if the decrease amounts to a trend.

The positivity rate among school staff also has dropped to less than 1% over the past month, according to the data shared by Steinhaus.

He said the state is in the middle of a “full-court press” to make sure in-person learning can continue. Schools are facing an Oct. 1 deadline to submit enhanced COVID-19 safety plans to the state.

“If you look at the research about how kids learn — and if you're a parent you know this — in-person learning just works better so that will continue to be our focus as move forward,” Steinhaus said.

So far, only 30 schools have opted to temporarily shift to remote learning due to an uptick in cases. Those decisions are being made by individual districts, not the Public Education Department, officials said.

Several dozen schools, including charter schools and Bureau of Indian Education schools, have opted into a grant program that funds COVID-19 testing and screening. More than 30,000 staffers and 184,000 students around the state already have been tested through the program.