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Governor declares public health emergency

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase sanitize their hands at the start of a news conference to talk about the first three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico on Wednesday March 11, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency Wednesday as the first cases of COVID-19 surfaced in New Mexico.

To slow transmission of the virus, the governor urged people to avoid public gatherings, sanitize common surfaces and minimize contact with other individuals, even if it means staying home from church or going out less often.

Older adults and those with chronic illnesses are most at risk, she said, but even healthy people not worried about getting sick should take steps to protect themselves and others. The strategy is designed to limit the chance of transmitting the disease to a person who’s more vulnerable.

“This is a very highly infectious virus,” Lujan Grisham said.

Three New Mexico residents tested positive for COVID-19 early Wednesday and are now isolating themselves at home – the first confirmed cases in the state, the governor said. A fourth positive test emerged later Wednesday.

Each case is travel-related – a good sign, state officials said, because it means New Mexico hasn’t yet seen the virus otherwise spreading throughout the community.

Two of the four cases are a Socorro County husband and wife, both in their 60s, who had traveled internationally, including to Egypt, state officials said.

A third case is a woman in her 70s in Bernalillo County who had traveled recently to the New York City area.

All three individuals are now isolated at home and cooperating with state health professionals.

The fourth case involves a woman in her 60s in Santa Fe County who had recently traveled to the New York area. State officials didn’t immediately say whether she is isolated at home, as the others are.

Earlier in the day, state officials said they were investigating any contact the initial three infected residents had had with other people in New Mexico, and the Department of Health is more closely monitoring particularly vulnerable populations, such as elderly or disabled adults living in group homes. State health workers, for example, are visiting with all 269 licensed assisted-living facilities in the state.

“This is a serious situation,” Lujan Grisham told reporters Wednesday. But “I will use every tool and resource to keep us safe.”

Sen. William Sharer, R-Farmington, accused the governor of going too far. People should take common-sense steps to protect themselves, he said, but the governor’s message will damage tourism and disrupt life in New Mexico far beyond what’s necessary.

“The governor’s Health Emergency declaration is already having huge negative effects on our state,” he said in a written statement.

He added: “Wash your hands and ignore the panic.”

Postponed travel

The high-profile Gathering of Nations event in Albuquerque – slated for April 23-25 – has been postponed, Lujan Grisham said.

The governor also urged New Mexicans to avoid public gatherings of all kinds, including neighborhood association meetings and the state high school basketball tournament.

For state workers, Lujan Grisham said nonessential employees have been instructed to work from home, and she has halted out-of-state travel by state employees. She expects local governments and private companies to follow suit.

New Mexicans, in general, should consider avoiding travel outside the state and staying home for spring break, Lujan Grisham said.

“My advice based on this public health emergency is that, frankly, any public gathering, community event – don’t go,” Lujan Grisham said. “We want to be very clear – if you minimize contact with other human beings, you will help us contain this virus.”

Testing capacity

Lujan Grisham said New Mexico now has 2,400 tests available to determine who has the coronavirus. Health officials, of course, are determining who is most in need of the test.

But “we are in really good shape,” the governor said Wednesday. “We are nowhere near our capacity to effectively test New Mexicans.”

The state has completed about 129 tests for the coronavirus so far – just four of which turned up “presumptive positive.”

Dr. Chad Smelser of the state Department of Health said confirmation of the initial COVID-19 positive tests in New Mexico came early Wednesday after overnight work by laboratory workers. The state has a laboratory to handle its own testing before sending the cases to the federal government for further confirmation, he said.

But the federal testing is similar to what New Mexico already completed, Smelser said.

The initial three New Mexicans who tested positive, meanwhile, are isolating themselves and cooperating with the state, officials said, though the state is also investigating where they’ve been and who they’ve met with.

“They were out in the community a bit,” Smelser said. “It’s an active investigation.”

Albuquerque Academy, meanwhile, announced its was closing its campus because a member of its community was in close contact with one of the people who tested positive for COVID-19.

As for the Socorro County couple, Socorro Mayor Ravi Bhasker said they were self-quarantined where they live in the community of Veguita, which is in the northern part of the county between Socorro and Belen.

They had returned from a cruise, the mayor said.

Lujan Grisham said a number of other New Mexicans are returning from a cruise, but will first go to Texas. She said she expects them to be tested before returning to New Mexico – and she thanked them for their patience.

Hand washing

The governor began her news conference by using hand sanitizer and urging people to make sure they clean thoroughly, including between their fingers. Soap and water is best, she said, but sanitizer is a good additional measure.

State officials urged people to protect themselves by:

• Washing their hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds;

• Cleaning “high-touch” surfaces daily with regular household cleaners;

• Avoiding the sharing of personal household items and, when sick, staying home rather that going to work or school.

State response

The declaration of a public health emergency, Lujan Grisham said, gives her administration emergency powers and financial flexibility. The declaration also directs the state Department of Workforce Solutions to ensure people laid off because of COVID-19 are eligible for unemployment benefits.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has also awarded New Mexico about $6.5 million to help respond to the virus.

Lujan Grisham urged people to be kind to each other. Her office, she said, has received reports of racist responses to the virus targeting Asian Americans, which she said “won’t be tolerated” in New Mexico.

Journal staff writers Scott Turner and Pilar Martinez contributed to this report.

 

• Visit cv.nmhealth.org to view information on the state’s response and number of tests conducted.

 

In an hourlong news conference at the Capitol, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham stressed repeatedly that people should limit their contact with others, even their doctors. Those worried they might have the virus should first call their doctor or the new state hotline: 855-600-3453.

Be prepared, the governor said, but don’t be panicked.

David Scrase, a physician and secretary of the Human Services Department, said there’s no need for people to go to the doctor in person if they believe they’re infected. Much of the work can be handled over the phone, he said.

Only 10% of the people who have the virus require hospitalization, Scrase said. The elderly and people with chronic illnesses are most at risk.

But others should take steps to slow the spread of the virus, too, officials said.

The virus can be transmitted even if you aren’t showing symptoms.

Potential signs of COVID-19 are a fever, cough and trouble breathing.

The disease is most often spread through coughing, state officials said, though people should also take steps to sanitize surfaces and minimize the use of shared items.

The Indian Health Service, state officials said, is establishing a drive-through testing site in Gallup and more could be deployed throughout the state.


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