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Editorial: Shutdown’s two sides

If only it was that simple.

There is no question Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s tough measures to combat COVID-19 have kept New Mexico’s death toll relatively low – although we collectively mourn the tragedy of more than 500 lives lost to the virus. There is no question the measures have helped keep the state’s hospitals operating well within their capacity for treating COVID patients. That was a key goal of measures taken since March to “flatten the curve.”

And there is no question that continuing an aggressive lockdown in which bars and select other businesses remain closed – even reversing course and re-imposing some restrictions that had been lifted, like re-banning indoor restaurant dining come Monday – will keep those numbers down.

But it’s not that simple. There is another side of the ledger. And it cannot simply be dismissed as trading dollars for lives.

Masks and social distancing make sense. The governor is right to push hard on both. But the economic devastation wrought by the lockdown is real. Thousands of people are out of work. Tourism for all intents and purposes has been decimated. Economic bellwether events like the Balloon Fiesta, State Fair and Sante Fe Opera have been canceled. Businesses have shuttered. Many of those that remain open are hanging on by a thread or facing serious headwinds.

The Baca family owns Bueno Foods, which has been in business since 1951. In comments to the Albuquerque City Council, the company wrote that its sales to restaurants – its biggest business category – were down 80% and “many of our restaurant friends in this industry have closed their doors forever, losing their life’s work.”

Shutting down schools to stop the virus spread also has had serious consequences. Kids are falling further behind – in a state with such dismal academic performance we can hardly afford to backslide even more. We have no idea how many cases of child abuse are going undetected because the mandatory reporting by school personnel is gone.

The mental health consequences are also significant.

One of those cases, the suicide of Landon Fuller, as reported in last Sunday’s Journal by reporters Ryan Boetel and Elise Kaplan, is illustrative. And heartbreaking.

Landon was an outgoing 11-year-old from Hobbs who enjoyed sports, making people laugh, riding his bike around the neighborhood and going to school and church. On April 23, almost six weeks after his last day in a classroom, Landon took the gun his father carried to protect himself from rattlesnakes in the oil fields. He rode his bike to a nearby field and killed himself.

His mother later found a diary in which Landon wrote, “I’m going mad staying at home all the time and not being able to go to school and play outside with my friends.”

Landon’s is not an isolated case.

His death was one of more than 2,300 “unexpected” deaths being analyzed by the Office of the Medical Investigator since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New Mexico in early March. That is a spike of nearly 20% (about 460 deaths) in that category, which includes car crashes, suicides, homicides and some natural deaths. Dr. Heather Jarrell, interim director of OMI, attributed the increase to “indirect causes of COVID.”

So yes, while COVID is killing people, the lockdown is, too.

“Anxiety, depression and other mental health struggles have been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak, and the stress that comes from precarious employment situations that many are enduring can be a lot to handle,” said Dr. Lawrence Weinstein, chief medical officer of American Addictions Centers. “Many people are turning to alcohol (and drugs) to cope with their newfound hardships, compounding their difficulties.”

Jarrell said people putting off seeking medical care also could be a factor in the rise in “unexpected” deaths. People with serious health problems either avoided seeking medical help or were unable to get procedures done until the governor relaxed her ban on non-emergent medical procedures. The delay has led to higher-acuity patients in hospitals now. And it will take hospitals around the state a long time to – if they can ever – dig out of the financial hole not being able to treat non-COVID patients put them in (even while they had virtually no COVID patients). That’s another long-term cost.

Another entry on this side of the ledger is the loss of a wide range of services for hundreds of New Mexicans with developmental disabilities. Under state orders, clients under the DD waiver program haven’t been getting essential services they need and rely on.

During her news conferences, the governor has expressed concern over businesses’ plight and the pain families feel when they can’t visit their loved ones in nursing homes. But the harm being inflicted on New Mexicans – financially, emotionally and physically – goes much deeper and creates its own casualties.

Saving lives by limiting the spread of a pandemic is important. No one should envy the governor having to make these incredibly difficult decisions.

But at the same time it is reasonable to ask that she take both sides of the ledger into account as we move forward. Lives – on both sides – depend on it.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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