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NM health agency has issued two isolation orders

Medical staff prepare at the drive-up coronavirus testing center at Lovelace Hospital in downtown Albuquerque in this April 19 file photo. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Department of Health has, in recent weeks, sought court intervention to require two patients infected with the coronavirus to self-isolate – marking the first time an isolation provision in a 2003 state law has been evoked during the COVID-19 outbreak.

An agency spokesman said Wednesday that court records are sealed in both cases because they contain protected information and added the department could not provide further details, including where the two individuals live.

“Our goal is not to punish or imprison people; it’s to isolate someone with COVID using the least restrictive means necessary when that person refuses to self-isolate,” DOH spokesman David Morgan told the Journal.

He also said the orders were filed within the past 20 days. Respondents would typically be isolated in a health facility,but could be isolated in their homes, he added.

The 2003 Public Health Emergency Response Act gives Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration the power to isolate or quarantine individuals – usually through a court order – to prevent or limit the spread of a communicable disease.

It also allows the agency to seek punishment of up to $5,000 in fines for each violation of the law, but Morgan said the Department of Health has no intention of assessing any penalties unless “absolutely necessary.”

Meanwhile, the 2003 law also authorizes the state to take control over health care facilities statewide, issue vaccine orders, and even exercise oversight over burials and cremations.

It’s also been used by Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel to bar health care providers and suppliers from selling or distributing medical gloves, masks and other equipment without the state’s approval.

However, the law includes certain safeguards intended to protect civil liberties, including the right to request a court hearing and regular medical treatment while in isolation or quarantine.

New Mexico’s court system has been bracing for isolation and quarantine orders, as a training session was held earlier this month for roughly 90 attorneys who volunteered through the State Bar of New Mexico to represent individuals in such cases.

Two judges in each judicial district have been designated by the state Supreme Court to hear public health emergency cases, including isolation and quarantine orders.

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