Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – An outbreak of cases at a privately-run detention center near Grants spurred New Mexico’s number of reported coronavirus cases to a new single-day high on Monday.
In all, Department of Health officials announced 467 new COVID-19 cases, with 170 of the cases coming from the Cibola Correctional Center in Milan.
The outbreak at the correctional center, which is run by CoreCivic and houses federal immigration detainees and other types of inmates, represents the latest spike in cases at a New Mexico prison facility.
A spokeswoman for the Tennessee-based private prison company said Monday that mass testing of Cibola County Correctional Center staff and detainees was conducted last week.
“Most of the staff and detainee cases that have tested positive through this mass testing effort were asymptomatic at the time of testing,” said Amanda Gilchrist, CoreCivic’s director of public affairs.
She also said the facility has provided face masks to all staff and detainees since April, separated high-medical-risk inmates from other detainees and halted all outside social visits in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19.
However, civil rights groups say the Cibola County facility has a reputation among detainees for being overcrowded and lacking basic sanitary supplies.
Maria Martinez Sanchez, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU in New Mexico, described the outbreak as predictable and raised questions about the abrupt spike in infections at the Cibola County Correctional Center – from five cumulative cases to 175 in one day.
“The only way to really mitigate the danger for these people is to depopulate these detention centers,” Martinez Sanchez told the Journal.
Sylvia Johnson with the Santa Fe Dreamers Project said advocates have been writing letters and urging elected officials – including Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham – to address the high risk for a COVID-19 outbreak at the Cibola County facility and other facilities since shortly after the pandemic started.
“I think the thing that’s most frustrating is we have been sounding the alarm since March or early April,” Johnson said.
As in other parts of the country, New Mexico prisons and jails have emerged as a trouble spot for containing the virus, along with senior living facilities and other types of group homes.
An Otero County prison that houses both state and federal inmates has also seen an infection outbreak, with a total of 469 total confirmed cases through Monday.
The Lujan Grisham administration has released a small number of low-security inmates, but rebuffed calls for more widespread releases.
The state Supreme Court in May rejected a petition to release large numbers of inmates from state prisons amid the coronavirus pandemic, ruling the Lujan Grisham administration was not purposely putting inmates’ safety at risk.
Statewide, testing for COVID-19 has remained high – state health officials reported an increase of more than 8,100 tests Monday – even after three major health systems announced last week they would halt testing on asymptomatic individuals due a supply shortage.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said state officials would keep working to ensure robust testing levels.
The governor and top health officials have set a goal of at least 5,000 average tests conducted per day as part of the state’s criteria for gradually reopening New Mexico’s economy.
Five deaths reported
After a steady increase, New Mexico coronavirus infection rates had shown recent signs of plateauing before Monday’s spike in new cases.
In addition to the Cibola County Correctional Center outbreak, state health officials also reported 76 new confirmed cases in Doña Ana County on Monday – the largest number in any single county, excluding Cibola County.
In all, the 467 new cases shattered the state’s previous single-day high of 338 cases, an amount reported on July 23.
Meanwhile, state health officials also reported five additional deaths due to the virus, bringing the state’s death toll to 619 since the pandemic began in mid-March.
Two of those five deaths occurred in Bernalillo County, where both a man in his 80s and a woman in her 60s died after being hospitalized. Both had underlying health conditions and were residents of separate group-living facilities.
The other individuals who died were a man in his 50s from Lea County, a man in his 60s from McKinley County and a woman in her 100s from Doña Ana County.