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Gov.: Social distancing is slowing spread

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham puts on her face mask Wednesday after finishing her weekly update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state.(Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said New Mexico still has a “long way to go” before declaring victory over the coronavirus, but said social distancing strategies appear to be slowing the virus’ spread – at least in most parts of the state.

During a Wednesday news conference that was streamed online, she said New Mexico health officials had no new deaths to announce and the growth of new cases may be slowing.

“What you’re doing is making a difference,” Lujan Grisham said of New Mexicans’ willingness to stay home and forgo social outings.

The governor spoke with Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, by telephone earlier Wednesday and said New Mexico has been selected as one of several states that will partner with the federal government on a pilot program that could expand testing and contact investigations into confirmed COVID-19 cases.

While details on the partnership were still scarce, the governor suggested it could allow for temperature readings of certain workers, a necessary step for reopening closed businesses.

However, Lujan Grisham said there’s still ample work to do to combat the spread of COVID-19 – which has claimed 36 lives in New Mexico since the state’s first case was confirmed about a month ago.

Altogether, the governor said, testing had confirmed 80 new virus cases Wednesday, bringing the state’s total to 1,484 cases.

More than half of those new cases were in the northwestern New Mexico’s McKinley and San Juan counties, which have high Native American populations.

Overall, Native Americans make up more than 36% of New Mexico’s confirmed cases, as outbreaks on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands – including Zia and San Felipe pueblos – have prompted curfew orders and other drastic steps.

As of Wednesday, there were 90 coronavirus patients hospitalized around the state. The governor said 22 of them need ventilators, a smaller proportion than the global and national average. About one-third of patients in other communities tend to need ventilators.

New Mexico has recently received 1.3 million surgical masks and 50,000 face shields for front-line health care workers from the federal government and other sources, but Lujan Grisham said state officials are still waiting on other requested equipment, including more ventilators.

“It should give you great confidence that we are taking nothing for granted,” the governor said.

Meanwhile, Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, a retired physician, said the number of coronavirus cases in New Mexico is now doubling every 4.6 days, not every two days, as earlier in the outbreak.

“It’s working,” he said of social distancing. “This curve really is flattening.”

Hospitals criticized

Despite the overall optimism, Lujan Grisham had some harsh words Wednesday for several hospital and health systems that have cut workers, slashed employee hours and made other reductions.

She said she knows they face financial challenges because of restrictions on elective surgeries – a profit source for hospitals.

But the restrictions, she said, are imposed nationwide for the most part – not just in New Mexico – to conserve hospital resources and prepare for a surge in virus patients.

Lujan Grisham suggested some hospitals are trying to guarantee their profits even as financial help is likely on the way.

“I find that to be appalling,” she said, “as we address this public health crisis together.”

She also said her administration was reaching out to certain hospitals to urge them to bring back the laid-off employees and redeploy them, if necessary, in different ways.

“I’m really disappointed the hospitals in New Mexico behaved this way,” Lujan Grisham said.

Some New Mexicans, including GOP lawmakers, have asked the governor to give some hospitals – especially those in rural parts of New Mexico – more flexibility to provide certain kinds of treatments while still abiding by social distancing requirements.

“Businesses across the state are struggling to survive, and rural hospitals are no exceptions,” Republican state Reps. James Townsend of Artesia, Rod Montoya of Farmington, and Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences, wrote in a letter to the governor this week.

“When this outbreak passes we all hope to be stronger and healthier, but how can that goal be realized if New Mexico’s rural health-care providers have closed due to the financial strain created by your executive orders?” the three lawmakers asked.

Too early to reopen

With New Mexico’s unemployment rolls swelling with more than 95,000 initial claims filed over the past month and many businesses forced to close, there have been increasing calls in recent days to allow certain small businesses to reopen.

But Lujan Grisham said it’s too early to reopen the economy and lift restrictions on nonessential businesses, even in just a few counties that haven’t been hit as hard.

The social distancing strategy has to be statewide, she said, to be effective. The virus, she added, has hit counties and communities of all sizes.

“We’re not seeing any benefit at all from having one community be different from another,” said Lujan Grisham, who added that she has spoken recently with Colorado Gov. Jared Polis about the possibility of a regional recovery effort.

The governor also thanked New Mexicans for their efforts over Easter weekend. She said she visited her mom at a group living facility through a window and with a mask on.

Lujan Grisham said the state issued only one cease-and-desist order over the weekend because almost every church opted for online or remote services after her administration curbed large in-person religious ceremonies – adding them to existing bans on other types of public gatherings.

She acknowledged the toll taken by her administration’s stay-at-home order but said the state has no choice but to stay the course.

“None of this is easy,” Lujan Grisham said. “We know there are many issues that are exacerbated by not being able to have social interactions.”

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