SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is tapping a public health expert from the University of New Mexico to lead its Health Department amid surging rates of coronavirus infection and hospitalizations.
Physician Tracie Collins was appointed Wednesday to lead an agency that is a cornerstone of the New Mexico's response to COVID-19, starting in mid-December.
Collins, who has guided virus-testing and tracing protocols at the state's flagship university, said her work as health secretary will involve helping people protect each other from COVID-19 in private settings amid indications that the virus is spreading at social and family gatherings that are beyond the direct reach of emergency health orders.
“We really have to make sure that we’re working with our communities so that people understand what their individual responsibilities are to contain this virus and make really good decisions, limiting the amount of people they are hanging out with, making sure that they’re adhering to the recommendations,” Collins said. “We’re in COVID fatigue, but we’ve got to hang on until we can get the vaccine.”
Gov. Michelle Lujan, a Democrat who previously served as health secretary, said that she chose Collins based on the need for “experienced and compassionate public health leadership.”
Collins, who is African American, expressed optimism that New Mexico will receive meaningful new support from the administration of President-elect Joe Biden to contend with COVID-19 and bolster testing capacity.
“We’ve had to fend for ourselves,” Collins said. “I think that the Biden-Harris administration will provide more opportunities. ... We are well into this pandemic, but we can’t let up now.”
The state struggled initially to secure protective supplies and joined a testing pilot program coordinated by the federal government. The governor has been a staunch critic of President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic response.
Daily confirmed infections hit a statewide record on Wednesday with 1,500 new coronavirus cases reported by state health officials, amid 15 related deaths.
The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths linked to COVID-19 in New Mexico has risen over the past two weeks from 5.9 deaths per day on Oct. 27 to 13.4 deaths per day on Nov. 10.
Collins is the dean of the College of Population Health at the University of New Mexico and has a clinical practice as a specialist in blood circulation.
She said she feels well prepared to lead the agency in a time of crisis based on research work involving patients from diverse backgrounds and masters' degrees in public health and the science of health care delivery. New Mexico's population is nearly half Latino, and about 10% of residents are Native American.
“I definitely have an interest and passion for social justice, and it includes in health care delivery,” Collins said. “As we get through the pandemic, I’ll be turning my attention to a lot of other issues, including health care delivery and making sure that we do a good job of delivering health care equitably and that people who are of color don’t feel like they are at a disadvantage just by being a minority when they step foot in a hospital.”
She will oversee an agency with more than 800 full-time employees that is at the forefront of the state's coronavirus testing and contact tracing efforts. The Health Department is the final author of emergency public health orders that currently require face masks in public, ban public gatherings of more than five people and have shut down entertainment venues.
The agency maintains the state online portal for coronavirus data and arranges testing for critical populations at tribal communities, nursing homes and shelters as well as food processing facilities, grocery stores, childcare centers, mining companies and more.
It also oversees the state's medical cannabis program at attends to about 100,000 patients, and could be transformed this year by initiatives to regulate and tax sales of recreational marijuana.
Collins will replace former Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel, who announced her retirement months ago, and work on the Cabinet alongside Human Services Secretary David Scrase, who has coordinated emergency coronavirus services with the medical sector.