Serving the High Plains

Guidance from the NM Department of Health

It has been another busy week here in New Mexico tracking COVID-19 cases and we are promoting social distancing everywhere.

The Lujan Grisham administration is doing everything we can to protect New Mexicans. But the majority of questions that get emailed, phoned and texted to us are not technical questions about social distancing — “Are we supposed to stay 6 feet or 6 meters apart?” — but rather, “Should I get tested?” and “Where can I get tested?”

Should I get tested? First, do you have symptoms? If the answer is no, then you do not need to be tested.

We’ve heard from hundreds of people who had contact with someone who had contact with someone who had a positive COVID-19 test. Only a few need testing.

“What if I live with someone who just tested positive?” No testing is needed, unless you develop symptoms. To date, DOH has recommended testing for only a few contacts.

You have symptoms of fever greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or a new dry cough, or shortness of breath. Should you get tested? The answer is “maybe.” Without additional risk factors, your health-care professional may decide to “watch and wait,” especially since there is no recommended treatment for COVID-19 patients outside of the hospital. And, after all, this is still flu season.

What are the risk factors? If you have symptoms and one of the following, then DOH does recommend testing:

• Persons who are 65 years and older, immunocompromised, pregnant, homeless, living in congregant facilities, or have chronic disease.

• Any of the following in the last 14 days before the onset of symptoms: Travel to affected areas (see below). Close contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case.

If you have symptoms and risk factors, your health-care provider will recommend testing. And immediate self-isolation for a total of 14 days if the test comes back positive.

“Travel to affected areas” is tricky. Every day it changes. Early last week it was Italy, Iran, China, South Korea. Now it is all of these, plus all of Europe, and an increasing number of “hot spots” in the United States.

The CDC website shows at least some “community spread” in about half of U.S. states. There were only four states with that designation a few days ago. Community spread is designated when cases no longer have a travel-related explanation and spread is occurring from person to person.

Where can I get tested? A new DOH web page lists almost all of the known testing sites and includes hours of operation and important information:

Most sites start with a standardized DOH screening tool to determine whether testing is necessary — if you don’t have symptoms you don’t need testing — and risk factors. This may be available online, when you get to the site, or both.

If testing is needed, a health-care provider will perform a nasal swab to collect material and put it in a vial to send to the lab. A reference lab will then run the specific test to see if you have been infected by COVID-19. Current lab turnaround is two to three days to process the test and report results, but we expect this time to drop as we rapidly expand our lab equipment and materials.

New Mexico has done an amazing job in only nine days getting many people tested for COVID-19 virus, and we want to thank our partners in the private sector for rapidly expanding testing sites and laboratory capacity.

We tested 2,797 people in nine days with test results from people in every state quadrant. We believe it’s the most rapid rate of tests per person per day of anywhere in the world. But we’ve tested less than 0.2% of our population, and we need to improve the accessibility of screening and testing to all New Mexicans in every corner of the state.

But what if I am scared and want the reassurance of a negative test, even though I don’t have symptoms? Isn’t that a good enough reason to get tested?

It is understandable that you might be scared. This viral pandemic has quickly spread over the entire world in just a few months and has a high mortality rate in older people. But we both believe that a test in a person without symptoms won’t help you at this point, although our epidemiologists are closely watching the data from every test.

A negative test only means it is negative at the time the test is done. Since 80 percent of those infected have only mild disease, and since there is no officially recommended treatment for those not in the hospital, we suggest that you stay home and practice social distancing in as many ways as you can, wash your hands, avoid touching your face and check the DOH website daily.

Kathyleen Kunkel is secretary of the Department of Health. Dr. David Scrase is secretary of the Human Service Department.