Skolnik: COVID Update #3 – Los Alamos, We Have An Outbreak

Los Alamos

Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of COVID-19 Updates by Richard Skolnik that appear bi-weekly in the Los Alamos Daily Post. These are meant to keep the community informed on the status of the pandemic, critical new findings on the pandemic, and what this information suggests for our community’s response to COVID-19. These updates complement the data that Eli Ben-Naim prepares for the Post. Unless otherwise noted, data is from the New York Times and the New Mexico Department of Health.

Pandemic Data and Trends – For the Week Ending Oct. 12, 2021

In the US, the daily average of cases declined by 21 percent, hospitalizations by 20 percent, and deaths by 10 percent over the last two weeks. The daily average of new cases in the US last week was about 91,000, with a daily average rate of 28 cases per 100,000. About 66 percent of all people over 12 years of age in the US are vaccinated.

The daily average of new cases rose in New Mexico over the last two weeks by 11 percent. The daily average number of cases was 751 last week, with a rate of 36 per 100,000. Hospitalizations grew by 1 percent but deaths fell 28 percent. Almost 71 percent of all New Mexicans over age 18 have been fully vaccinated.

Los Alamos is the midst of a dramatic increase in cases, partly related to an outbreak at Barranca Elementary School. Los Alamos had a daily average over the last week of 44 cases per 100,000, about 50 percent higher than the national average. This was an increase of 445 percent over the last two weeks. This was the fastest rate of increase in the state. The age distribution of new cases (thanks to Eli Ben-Naim) is shown in the graphic below, for a 15-day period, given the holiday. About 89 percent of the adults above 18 are fully vaccinated in Los Alamos County. (Please note that vaccine data does not reflect any booster doses that have been given).

The bars in this chart show the number of COVID-19  diagnoses in Los Alamos by age group for the week ending Oct. 12. Source: New Mexico Department of Health. Created by Eli Ben-Naim

Important Pandemic Information

The FDA will meet Oct. 14 and 15 to consider requests for emergency use authorization of boosters from Moderna and J&J. They will also hear a presentation from the NIH on getting a booster from a different vaccine than one got originally. The FDA will consider Oct. 26 an application from Pfizer for emergency use authorization of a vaccine for ages 5-11.

Merck is seeking emergency use authorization for the first anti-viral pill that would address COVID among high-risk adults or younger people with certain high-risk health conditions. The drug would be contraindicated for women who are pregnant or wish to become pregnant. A range of other therapeutics are under development.

There were about 148,000 children infected in the week ending Oct. 7. This is a decline from 173,000 infected in the week ending Sept. 30. An increasing amount of information is becoming available on COVID in children. The “bottom line to date is: kids are getting infected in the US with Delta at least at the same rate as adults; the rates of severe illness, hospitalization, and deaths in children remain low; and up to 5 percent of infected children still show symptoms after 6 months. The facts that children can spread COVID, including to adults, and that children may suffer “long COVID” remain important reasons for keeping infections in children to a minimum.

What Do We need to Do in Los Alamos?

However fatigued we are of COVID, we need as a community to wake up to the dramatic increase in infections and take measures to try to tamp down the outbreak urgently.

These must include:

  • Continued and consistent implementation of our layered approach to mitigation in the schools.
  • Ensuring that all members of our community engage in isolation and quarantine as outlined in the NMPED Toolkit when they are infected or when they are a “close contact.” The failure to do this by even a small number of people can have enormous consequences on infections, on our ability to keep schools open, and on our keeping our local economy going.
  • Postponing any unnecessary large gatherings outdoors and avoiding any community gatherings that would lead to significant unmasked time indoors.
  • The state has planned to revise the schedule for diagnostic testing in Los Alamos to provide additional vaccine days, just as we face an outbreak. The responsible parties in Los Alamos need to work with state authorities to make diagnostic testing as accessible as possible and to have results returned as fast as possible. 
  • It appears that surveillance testing may be rolling out soon in our schools. This has the potential to be very helpful to understand and act on infections in our schools, especially during an outbreak. To be effective, however, it is important that as many families as possible enroll their children in this program.
  • We urgently need to understand how infections are spreading in Los Alamos and how we need to adjust our mitigation efforts to deal with this spread. New Mexico has a unified state health department and we don’t have a local health authority that can carry out outbreak investigations. Thus, the County should ask the NMDOH to urgently help us get a fix on the routes of transmission involved in this outbreak and measures we can take to tamp it down as quickly as possible. If the NMDOH can’t help us, the County should urgently bring in a “disease detective” to do so. The outbreak has gone on for several weeks and it is essential that we urgently understand the outbreak and how to address it.

Editor’s Note: Richard Skolnik is the former regional director for health for South Asia at the World Bank. He was the director of an AIDS treatment program for Harvard and taught Global Health at the George Washington University and Yale. He is the author of Global Health 101 and the instructor for Yale/Coursera’s Essentials of Global Health. Skolnik has written this article in his personal capacity.