Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The state has ordered a Walmart Supercenter in Las Cruces to close after four employees tested positive for COVID-19 in three weeks.
Saturday morning, the New Mexico Environment Department’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau posted a “notice of imminent and substantial endangerment to employees and the public” at the store, 3331 Rinconada Blvd.
“Employees are exposed to the hazards of COVID-19 after multiple employees tested positive for the coronavirus,” the notice says. “Store management has not taken the actions necessary to prevent spread of the virus including ceasing operations to disinfect the establishment and testing staff to ensure additional employees are not infected.”
Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the Environment Department, said Walmart managers said they are not requiring employees who contract the illness to self-quarantine for 14 days and they are not notifying people who came into close personal contact with those employees to get tested.
The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that the store remained open until at least 4 p.m. but was closed by 6 p.m.
In a statement to the Journal late Saturday night, a Walmart spokeswoman denied that the store had not taken steps to stem the spread of the virus. She said the company has had polices in place for several months mandating that if an employee tests positive they are sent home and may only return to work if 10 days have passed since the first symptoms or positive test, they don’t have a fever, symptoms are improving and a health care provider considers them fit to return.
“We follow New Mexico’s and the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s) requirements to notify associates who may have come into close personal contact with associates who test positive,” Tiffany Wilson, the director of communications, wrote in an email. “Associates are informed of the availability of COVID-19 testing and the Walmart Health plan covers testing for all associates who have Walmart insurance and obtain a note from a physician. Additionally, in the state of New Mexico we send home any associates who may have had close contact with any confirmed positive case – within or outside of our stores. Anyone who is sent home for potential close contact is required to quarantine for 14 days.”
She said they have also taken other precautions, including installing sneeze guards at registers, limiting the number of customers in the store, and more.
Hayden said the state was not told until Friday that four employees at Las Cruces had tested positive for the illness caused by the novel coronavirus. She said they do not know where the employees were infected with the virus or whether any of them caught it from one of the others.
“When store management could not provide details on the four COVID-positive employees or their close contacts, we ordered them to close,” Hayden said.
She said the store’s 416 employees all need to be tested and receive a negative result before they can return to work.
“We have ordered the store to close immediately and not open until the whole store has been disinfected,” Hayden said. “We have been informed by Walmart that the store will be disinfected tonight. In addition, none of the Las Cruces Walmart employees are allowed to return to work until they have tested negative. If the store wants to open tomorrow, they will have to bring in a different group of employees to operate the store.”
She urged anyone who has been in the store since June 22 to get tested for COVID-19 – including customers.
Over the past couple of months, the Environment Department has conducted “rapid responses” to Walmarts in Albuquerque, Bernalillo, Deming, Gallup and Los Lunas, Hayden said.
Rapid responses, which have taken place at over 400 businesses statewide, try to prevent the spread of the virus by ensuring other employees get tested and are quarantined, if needed. Employers are also advised about how to disinfect the workplace and create safety plans.
According to a spreadsheet posted on the NMED website: In June, two Walmart employees in Deming, one employee in Los Lunas and one employee in Albuquerque tested positive for the virus, and one employee in Bernalillo and another employee in Albuquerque tested positive this month.
Statewide total climbs
The four Las Cruces Walmart employees are included in a total of more than 14,000 COVID-19 cases throughout the state.
On Saturday, the New Mexico Department of Health announced 230 new cases of the illness, bringing the statewide total to 14,773.
There were also four additional deaths: a McKinley County man in his 40s who had been hospitalized and had underlying medical conditions; a McKinley County man in his 50s who had underlying medical conditions; an Otero County woman in her 80s who was hospitalized and had underlying conditions; and a San Juan County man in his 70s who was a resident of the Central Desert Behavioral Health in Albuquerque.
There have now been 543 deaths in New Mexico due to COVID-19.
The largest number of new cases reported Saturday were in Bernalillo County – where 80 people tested positive. There were 32 new cases in Doña Ana County and 29 in San Juan County. McKinley County, which had been a hot spot for the virus, reported 15 new cases.
There was also one new case among inmates in state custody at the Otero County Prison Facility, meaning there are now 458 state inmates, in addition to 275 at the federal prison in the same complex and 149 at the Otero County Processing Center, which holds detainees for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Throughout the state, 158 people are hospitalized, although the count may include people who tested positive for COVID-19 out of state and are hospitalized in New Mexico. The Department of Health has designated 6,271 people as having recovered.
To file a workplace complaint, email complaints.OSHA@state.nm.us or call 505-476-8700.