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State urges citizens to wear masks when in public

Annie King, from Santa Fe, loads her groceries after shopping at La Montañita Co-op in Santa Fe on Thursday. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham says health officials are encouraging residents to wear masks when in public. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With coronavirus spreading through nearly all parts of New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that state health officials are now strongly encouraging residents to wear masks when they venture out in public.

While the face coverings are not required and should not be viewed as providing complete protection against COVID-19, the Governor’s Office suggested that masks could mitigate the spread of germs amid an outbreak that has led to 403 confirmed coronavirus cases statewide.

Seven New Mexicans have died of COVID-19, nearly all of them elderly individuals with underlying health issues. The most recent death – that of a Bernalillo County woman in her 70s – was reported by state health officials on Thursday.

“Our guidance to the public will be that face coverings may provide some additional benefit and are encouraged – but of course they do not replace the important actions of staying home, washing your hands, and aggressive social distancing as far as reducing the spread,” Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki told the Journal.

Specially designed masks for doctors and nurses should not be used by members of the public, however, to ensure there are as many as possible for front-line health care workers.

Specifically, the Governor’s Office said it’s important that state residents do not use the snug-fitting N95 face masks that protect medical workers from coronavirus.

There is a statewide stock of only about 44,000 such face masks, the Associated Press reported.

Meanwhile, the new state-level recommendation came as President Donald Trump’s administration was reportedly finalizing guidance urging most Americans to wear face coverings when leaving home.

The federal recommendations would apply at least to those who live in areas hit hard by community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Associated Press.

While some health care experts have questioned how effective the wearing of masks in public is when it comes to combating the coronavirus, there’s been recent movement nationwide toward face coverings in grocery stores, pharmacies and other public places.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday urged the city’s 4 million residents to wear masks when they go out, even homemade cloth masks or makeshift bandannas.

“We’re going to have to get used to seeing each other like this. … This will be the look,” Garcetti said while donning a black mask.

Other countries have also issued mask recommendations, and Austria said this week that it would require masks for grocery shoppers.

In New Mexico, many state residents have already begun wearing masks, bandannas and other types of face coverings in grocery stores, and some have begun making their own masks at home.

“Wearing a face covering is no guarantee, but it can help, and you are encouraged to do so,” the governor tweeted Thursday during an online question-and-answer session.

The new recommendation from New Mexico health officials marks a shift in stance when it comes to mask-wearing in public places.

Department of Health Epidemiologist Michael Landon said in February – before the first reported case of coronavirus – that masks were unnecessary and that New Mexicans should be more concerned about catching the flu.

The COVID-19 outbreak has spread quickly since New Mexico’s first case was announced March 11, though top state officials have said social distancing strategies – including a ban on large public gatherings and the closure of businesses deemed nonessential – appear to be helping slow the spread.

Lujan Grisham has said the state’s death tally will likely increase, even though most people who test positive for coronarivus have only mild to moderate symptoms – including fever, cough, fatigue and shortness of breath – and do not require hospitalization.

As of Tuesday, COVID-19 cases had been confirmed in 21 of New Mexico’s 33 counties.

There were 34 individuals hospitalized due to the coronavirus, while the state Department of Health had designated 31 state residents as having recovered from the virus after testing positive.

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