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NM sees significant fall in new virus cases

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update Thursday on the COVID-19 health emergency in New Mexico and the state’s effort to stop the virus. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that New Mexicans are pushing coronavirus infection rates back down – enough to allow in-person visits, under strict limits, for people in nursing homes.

But the downward trend, she said, needs to continue before the state relaxes business restrictions in its public health orders more broadly.

“We’re doing much better – too early to say we’re out of the woods,” Lujan Grisham said in a news conference broadcast from the Capitol that was watched by more than 9,000 people. “Let’s make sure we can do this for the rest of August.”

The governor reported that two more residents had died in the coronavirus outbreak and that testing had detected 212 more cases of the disease, continuing a strong downward trend in new infections since last week.

The statewide death toll now stands at 669.

The state’s seven-day rolling average for new cases is now 198 cases a day – a decline of 40% since last week, when the average hit 330 on July 29, according to a Journal analysis.

“We’re doing really well,” Lujan Grisham said. “We’re now trending in the right direction.”

The state now meets most – but not all – of the administration’s standards for reopening more of the economy, according to data released by the state this week.

The only areas the state is not meeting its established criteria are contact tracing and isolation – or how quickly people who test positive for the disease are able to quarantine themselves and how long it takes to get in touch with someone who had contact with them.

After recent improvement, it now takes 32 hours to ensure someone is isolated after a positive test, eight hours longer than the state’s target. And quarantining that person’s contacts now takes about 49 hours, or 13 hours longer than the goal.

“We are in a tug of war with the virus,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said. “We all need to pull together against the virus. … We’re within a stone’s throw of getting our kids back to school.”

The state is also showing improvement in controlling the transmission of COVID-19, according to the state’s statistical modeling. The spread rate of the disease has fallen to 0.72, meaning that for every 10 people who are infected, they will spread the disease on average to only 7.2 others. The state’s target is a rate below 1.05.

Other reopening criteria being met included the number of tests conducted, the percentage of tests that come back positive, hospital bed capacity and available medical supplies.

Nursing home visits

Lujan Grisham and top Cabinet officials in her administration also announced Thursday they were easing restrictions on family visits to nursing home residents and those who live in long-term care facilities.

That comes after the governor’s administration recently eased similar restrictions on in-person visits to individuals enrolled in New Mexico’s developmental disabilities programs who live in group homes.

However, visits to nursing home residents will only be allowed under certain circumstances and in counties where the disease is less prevalent due to the high risk of transmission.

To allow visits, the facility must have no active COVID-19 cases, and visitors must be healthy. Social distancing and personal protective equipment – such as a mask – will also be required, said Aging and Long-Term Services Secretary Katrina Hotrum-Lopez.

Lujan Grisham, whose mother Sonja lives in an Albuquerque senior-living facility, urged New Mexicans to use caution while visiting loved ones.

“If we don’t get this right, we will have spread … and people will die,” the governor said.

While only 6.1% of New Mexico’s long-term care facilities have had one or more confirmed coronavirus cases, several facilities have had deadly outbreaks.

In addition, New Mexicans who are 70 are older are much more likely to die if they are infected by the virus than are younger state residents, according to state data.

No indoor dining

The governor last week extended a public health order that mandates the wearing of face masks in public settings through Aug. 28.

The order also prohibits gatherings of more than five people, bans indoor dining at restaurants and limits the operation of retail stores, salons and many other businesses to 25% of capacity.

Lujan Grisham said Thursday it’s possible that some of those restrictions could be relaxed before the order’s expiration date, depending on the state’s case trajectory, but said allowing indoor restaurant dining was still off the table for now.

“This virus is so contagious that it’s too risky,” she said.

She also touted several state business aid programs, including a $400 million small business loan program that was launched this week.

However, Republican Party chairman Steve Pearce said the restrictions imposed by the Lujan Grisham administration have already wrought deep damage to the state’s economy.

“Today Gov. Lujan Grisham tells New Mexicans ‘it’s good news this week,’ but it’s confounding that she doesn’t get it and can’t see the depth of the vast problems and trail of economic destruction she’s left in the wake of her illogical and unjust decisions throughout this crisis,” Pearce said Thursday.

The governor, who defeated Pearce in the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race, said Thursday she takes no joy in imposing economic restrictions and does not want businesses to fail.

Many fellow Democrats have also defended Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic, with House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, saying this week that more Republicans should “get on the side of science.”

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