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While the days of knowing precisely how many individuals have tested positive for COVID-19 on any given day are gone, infection upticks are still relatively easy to track.

One could look at the red hue of the state map available on the New Mexico Department of Health’s (NMDOH) COVID Dashboard at cvprovider.nmhealth.org/public-dashboard.html. For the period from July 12-25, Eddy County recorded 38.5 positive cases per 100,000 people for a positivity rate of 22.2%.

Locally, Artesia General Hospital (AGH) continues to keep a close eye on the ongoing pandemic, and the Daily Press reached out Wednesday to Marshall G. Baca Jr., DO, FACEP, FAAEM, director of the Emergency Department at AGH, for an update on the current situation in Artesia.

That cases have increased over the course of the summer due to extremely contagious subvariants of the Omicron strain is evident through increased incidents reported by the New Mexico Environment Department’s Rapid Response program for schools, businesses and organizations, published each Sunday and Thursday in the Daily Press.

And though more people are utilizing the home test kits that have become readily available to the public — making specific positivity numbers difficult to pinpoint — closures, cluster outbreaks, and simple word of mouth make clear that COVID has been on the rise again of late in Artesia.

Baca says the current uptick has been ongoing for around six to eight weeks at this point but notes that the silver lining — for both AGH and the public — is that Omicron has not ravaged public health the way the previous dominant variant, Delta, did.

“The biggest difference with this variant is that it’s very highly contagious, but it’s not as severe of a disease,” Baca said. “So we’ve had very few admissions for COVID and even less transfers for COVID, and that’s quite a different experience than when Delta was here.”

And while that and the advancements the country has made in terms of prevention and treatment since the pandemic began to take hold in March 2020 are good news, continued issues such as the potential for severe infection among individuals with underlying conditions and the possibility of long COVID mean people should still be taking precautions to try to avoid becoming infected.

The most effective among those precautions remains COVID-19 vaccinations.

“Even though this variant is kind of tending to elude both prior infections and vaccinations, vaccines still offer that level of protection to keep you from having a severe course,” Baca said.

Right now, medical experts — including Baca — recommend that individuals age 50 and up receive a second booster for an added and reinforced level of protection. Individuals under 50 are still ineligible for the second booster, excepting those with certain serious medical conditions, but Baca says discussions are active that could see that changed by the fall.

Those seeking a second booster, along with those who have not received any vaccination against COVID and those who have not yet received a first booster, are urged to take those steps and can schedule appointments at vaccinenm.org.

With vaccines currently in development that should better target the Omicron variant, some individuals who are eligible for a second booster have also been wondering whether they should wait until those shots are available.

Baca has a clear answer to that question: no. The added protection of boosters is a key weapon against severe infection, and those who receive a second booster now will still eventually be able to receive an Omicron-specific shot in the future.

“If you’re eligible for your second booster — your fourth shot total — I still say get it,” said Baca. “And then once that new technology comes out, we’ll obviously have guidance as to when you can get that one.”

Almost as important as vaccination in Artesia’s fight against COVID is quarantining.

That infections on the whole are less severe at the moment is not a good enough reason to roll the dice when it comes to the possibility of severe infection, re-infection or infecting others, and Baca stresses that it is very important for individuals who test positive to quarantine.

“There is an uptick out there, it is highly contagious, and if you have symptoms, you should test,” he said. “And if you’re positive, you should still quarantine. There are instances you hear about where people are known positive but still go out because it’s a very mild course, which is obviously not what we’re wanting.

“We’re still wanting people to quarantine. The guidelines right now are still a full 10 days unless you have critical staffing shortages. If you’re an essential worker and they need staffing, it’s still a minimum of five days with the understanding that you need to be fever-free for 24 hours and improving before you go back out.”

As for what’s to come, Baca expects a continued surge as the fall season arrives and, before that, with the impending start of a new school year Aug. 11 and the sort of mass gatherings that accompany it. But if Artesians are mindful of their health and the health of others, he’s optimistic about the navigation of future upticks.

“I think the surge we’re experiencing right now is going to kind of go into the fall, but assuming there’s not a variant that comes out like Delta, I suspect that it’ll kind of stay its course,” Baca said. “There’ll be a lot of people who get sick who have to stay home but who won’t be hospitalized, and the death tolls will be significantly less than Delta.

“But the highlights are still quarantine if you’re sick, test whenever you have symptoms, and vaccines, vaccines, vaccines.”