Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
With a COVID-19 outbreak that hit more than 50 positive cases on Thursday, La Pasada Halfway House executive director Ruben Chavez said he isn’t going home anytime soon.
In fact, he said he has been living with the dozens of pre-trial federal detainees and state defendants in the residential facility on North Fourth Street in Albuquerque for the past 10 days.
“That way, I’m not exposing anybody else,” said Chavez, who has worked at the nonprofit halfway house for the past nine years.
So far, nearly all of the 44 residents who have tested positive have been asymptomatic, he said. But the challenge is to try to keep the others who have tested negative from contracting it. Currently, there are 76 people living there, Chavez said.
Typically, federal defendants deemed to be at low risk of fleeing or those who don’t pose a public safety threat are permitted to live at the halfway house while awaiting trial in Albuquerque. Both men and women reside there.
In normal times, they usually can leave to go to their jobs or for medical appointments.
But nobody is going anywhere right now, Chavez said. “Everyone’s on hold right now.”
During court hearings Thursday in Albuquerque, U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Yarbrough informed defendants and their attorneys that La Pasada isn’t “taking people for at least the foreseeable future.” One court staffer told the judge it could take up to another three months before the halfway house will be open again. (With the COVID-19 threat, the public is permitted to listen to live court proceedings online.)
The temporary loss of La Pasada has left federal magistrate judges in Albuquerque with few options: they can either release defendants on their own recognizance or to the custody of third-party custodians pending trial. Or they can temporarily house them at one of the state’s prisons.
Yarbrough told those in court he recognized that “two of the biggest (COVID-19) outbreaks in New Mexico have been in correctional facilities,” but he opted to keep several defendants seeking halfway house release confined to correctional facilities in Cibola or Torrance counties for the time being.
Chavez said La Pasada Halfway House, which dates back to the late 1970s, helps keep tabs on defendants, and alerts U.S. Probation and Parole officers when residents abscond or fail to abide by their conditions of release. The building can house up to 110 people, he said.
The state Department of Health, which is working to contain the spread, confirmed at least 44 positive cases of residents and seven staff members in an email to the Journal late Thursday.
Chavez lamented on Thursday how he and his 35 employees “were able to head it (the coronavirus) off for such a long time. But apparently everything we did just didn’t work. We were wearing protective equipment, gloves, taking temperatures and making sure people were washing their hands when they came in for the last six months. But it’s just inevitable.” So far, no one has become seriously ill.
He believes the outbreak started earlier this month with one resident who fell ill and was taken to the emergency room. That person was returned to the facility and later tested positive. Now, it is a matter of testing residents regularly and keeping those infected quarantined.
So far, there’s been cooperation among the residents, he said.
Chavez said he and his program director “are trying to be good leaders and, if we’re here, then it makes everyone else feel a little more comfortable.”
He said his wife understands his absence at home because she is a priest in her church and wants to protect her congregation.
“We’re on the front lines, like everybody else,” Chavez said. “We want to make sure we’re also keeping everyone’s spirits up as well, and letting them know it’s going to be OK and it will pass.”