We are still in the midst of a pandemic. But pandemics have patterns, and the first wave of this one is receding. In New Mexico, we flattened the curve of COVID-19 infections to a level that could be treated in our health care system. We have paid dearly: More than 300 New Mexicans lost their lives to this virus so far, and people continue to struggle with the economic consequences. But as transmission rates drop around the state, it is clear that we have made progress.
As we pass from the first wave into the next phase, our primary task is to figure out how to live with this novel virus among us. Together, we slowed its spread by dutifully practicing appropriate behaviors: social distancing, face covering, vigilant hygiene and isolation by staying home. In the next phase, as we move to reopen our communities and businesses, we must keep transmission rates low. Opening up seems risky, but if we act responsibly, and all of us together keep using those same behaviors, we will continue to reduce the spread of the virus.
Last week, the New Mexico Department of Health tested 371 people on campus for the coronavirus, and this week, we tested another 270. The people tested did not have symptoms of COVID-19. Although this week’s test results are pending, we learned that about 4 percent of the first 371 people were actively infected with the coronavirus, all of them asymptomatic.
By participating in this COVID-19 testing, the NMSU community is contributing to knowledge about how this virus acts and spreads in our communities. According to Dr. Kathryn Hanley, NMSU regents professor and virologist, about half of the cases in China came from people who were infected but had not yet become sick, or from people who had the virus but never developed symptoms. Understanding that 4 percent of people at NMSU are carrying the coronavirus — but don’t know it — really reinforces the need for social distancing, hand-washing and especially face coverings.
During the testing, a dear colleague in my office tested positive for the virus. It was startling at first, but the rest of the office tested negative, and the colleague has remained healthy. Learning that I was in such close proximity to a colleague who tested positive demonstrated two powerful things: First, the person working next to you can be carrying the virus without knowing it, and second, it is possible to work with somebody carrying the virus and not catch it. Our office practices — social distancing, face coverings, and increased cleaning and hand-washing — helped the rest of the people test negative. This was both sobering and very reassuring.
On May 28, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced a list of businesses that can open Monday at reduced capacity following COVID-safe practices. At NMSU, research efforts are re-engaging, and on Monday, we will open the Las Cruces campus grounds back up to the community. We can do these things because we are learning how to live with this virus, and we are ready for the next steps.
We are in this fight for the long-term, and we will be stronger if we remain united against the virus and if we are kind to ourselves and others.
Be Bold, Be Kind, Be Safe.