SANTA FE – The next stage of New Mexico’s battle to curb the COVID-19 outbreak will be waged with masks and expanded testing, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday implored state residents to stay vigilant to avoid new spikes of confirmed cases.
Specifically, the governor said face masks will be required for some essential workers – including grocery store and restaurant employees – starting Wednesday.
And coronavirus testing for corrections officers and inmates will be ramped up over the next week after the state’s low testing rates in prison drew recent criticism, the governor’s health secretary said.
With New Mexico starting to gradually relax business restrictions imposed to slow the spread of the virus, Lujan Grisham said too many New Mexicans are failing to stay 6 feet apart from one another and wear masks when out in public.
“Social distancing does not mean going about your regular life with your friends and family with a little or no distance between you,” the governor said during a Tuesday news conference that was broadcast online and watched by more than 7,000.
“The actions you take today determine our ability to safely and effectively reopen” the state’s economy, she added.
New Mexico’s death toll from the coronavirus outbreak has reached 162 since the state’s first case was announced March 11, with six additional deaths announced Tuesday.
In recent weeks, infection rates have skyrocketed in two northwestern New Mexico counties – McKinley and San Juan – with large Native American populations, and 68 of the state’s 107 newly confirmed cases on Tuesday were in those two counties.
In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, Lujan Grisham on Monday extended a lockdown order for Gallup, which is in McKinley County, for an additional three days, after the city’s mayor asked her to do so. Under the new order, the lockdown will remain in place until noon Thursday.
Meanwhile, the COVID-19 outbreak has also hit nursing homes and other group-living facilities hard. As of Tuesday, there were 24 such facilities statewide that had confirmed cases among residents or staff, according to the Department of Health.
Statewide, 4,138 people have tested positive for the virus, though 964 cases are now designated as having recovered by the state Department of Health. That’s a recovery rate of 23.3%.
With the coronavirus still active, New Mexico will phase in requirements for workers at some businesses to wear face coverings.
Under a revised public health order issued by Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel, face coverings or medical-grade masks – they can be homemade or purchased – will be mandatory starting Wednesday for all employees at restaurants and large retail stores deemed essential.
The order, which does not require that employers provide the masks, will extend to smaller retail stores Monday.
It also stipulates that all businesses allowed to stay open in McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties require their employees to wear masks.
Avoiding an increase in transmission of the new coronavirus, which causes the respiratory disease COVID-19, is necessary, Lujan Grisham said, to reopen more businesses later this month, as state officials hope.
People can spread the virus even if they have no symptoms and don’t realize they’re infected, she said.
“You have to treat everything you do every day as if you have the virus,” Lujan Grisham said.
Health officials, she said, will be guided by data on disease transmission as they weigh whether it’s safe to reopen more businesses.
The governor last week relaxed some business restrictions, allowing golf courses, gun shops and state parks to reopen in a limited capacity.
But she also urged New Mexicans to stay home as much as possible and keep following social distancing guidelines, while extending a state emergency public health order through May 15.
No downward trend
While coronavirus infection rates have dropped in many New Mexico counties, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the latest data on disease transmission isn’t what state officials had hoped for.
Even outside the hot spots of northwestern New Mexico, the number of new cases isn’t falling off in the rest of the state as it had been.
“We are not actually seeing that downward trend,” Scrase said. “That is a problem for us in terms of containing the spread of the disease.”
The spread rate of the disease is still 1.24, meaning each infected person will infect 1.24 others. The goal before moving into the next phase of reopening, Scrase said, is to get the rate down to 1.15.
At the current rate, he said, the state would have 3,976 more fatalities over the course of the year. Shaving that transmission rate down just a bit would make a tremendous difference, he said.
“Remember, the mask is not to protect you – it’s to protect other people from you,” Scrase said.
“We have to learn to live in a COVID-positive world,” Scrase added. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing for another year.”
Goal is 5,000 tests a day
New Mexico’s coronavirus testing capacity has increased in recent weeks, and state officials have set a goal of running 5,000 tests per day statewide.
Some of those tests will be conducted behind bars, as Kunkel said Tuesday that New Mexico will step up its testing of correctional guards and inmates.
The move comes after state public defenders and others asked the Supreme Court to order the release of more inmates from state prisons as a matter of public health. The justices rejected the petition, however, finding that the Lujan Grisham administration hadn’t been “deliberately indifferent to the health and safety of the inmates.”
Kunkel said Tuesday that by next week, the goal is to test 100% of guards and 25% of inmates. Incoming inmates will also be tested and face a 14-day isolation period.
Kunkel also said all employees of a Santa Teresa meatpacking plant were tested after a recent outbreak that led to five confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The plant is operating in a limited capacity, and state officials are working with its owners to determine a reopening plan, Kunkel said.
In response to a question, Lujan Grisham also expressed concern about a U.S. Department of Defense policy to test only military base personnel who show coronavirus symptoms.
She said she has asked the White House and other federal officials to allow officials at New Mexico’s three military bases – Kirtland Air Force Base, Holloman Air Force Base and Cannon Air Force Base – to expand testing but has not received an answer.
“They could do 20,000 (tests) in two weeks-plus, but they have to have permission to do it,” Lujan Grisham said. “It would make a big difference for us to know what’s going on in the state.”