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As infections rise, governor pushes safeguards

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham discusses New Mexico’s latest COVID-19 case figures during a Thursday news briefing at the state Capitol in Santa Fe.  (Matt Dahlseid/Santa Fe New Mexican)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With New Mexico’s COVID-19 infection growth once again on the rise, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged state residents on Thursday to “double down” on mask-wearing, testing and other strategies to limit disease transmission.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

Specifically, the governor cited data showing coronavirus infections in workplaces around the state had increased by more than 100 cases last week, compared to the previous week.

Those increases were seen in restaurants – where state “rapid responses” that are launched when an employee tests positive more than tripled – and in other types of retail establishments around New Mexico.

“These are indicators that we’re headed in the wrong direction,” Lujan Grisham said Thursday during a news conference broadcast online.

The Lujan Grisham administration in recent weeks eased some restrictions on hotels and restaurants, after a steady decrease in the state’s COVID-19 case growth and test positivity rate.

But those numbers have ticked back up in recent days, with the state’s test positivity rate rising to 3.4% as of Wednesday, Lujan Grisham said.

In addition, health officials reported 239 new coronavirus cases Thursday, pushing the state’s seven-day rolling average to 147 cases a day – a 67% increase from the average in the week ending Sept. 12.

At the same time, the governor said some recent COVID-19 testing events have drawn a small turnout.

She said the state would ramp up its testing efforts in counties with higher infection rates in the coming days, and urged state residents to get tested if they have any symptoms or are concerned they might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

“As a state, we are getting impatient” to get back to normal, Lujan Grisham said, describing it as a “troubling few days” for New Mexico.

“Do not let COVID-19 fatigue prevent you from doing what you know is right,” the governor later added.

Even with this week’s case growth, Lujan Grisham said, the number of infections remains well within the state’s target of 168 or fewer a day.

The state is generally meeting its criteria for safely reopening more of the economy, though Lujan Grisham did not announce any changes Thursday to a public health order set to expire in mid-October.

More young people infected

Most of the 859 coronavirus deaths reported in New Mexico have been older adults with underlying health conditions, but younger New Mexicans appear to be driving the recent uptick in cases.

There were 337 new COVID-19 cases involving individuals in the 20-29 age group during the last two weeks – or about 18.7% of all new cases statewide during that time frame, according to data from the Governor’s Office.

That figure was the largest among any age group, though 30-39-year-olds were not far behind, with 326 new reported cases during the last two weeks.

With more younger people getting infected, New Mexico hospitalization and death rates from the virus remain significantly lower than peak levels from mid-May.

State health officials announced two more virus deaths Thursday – a woman in her 80s from Bernalillo County and a woman in her 90s from Cibola County.

Election casts its shadow

The uptick in cases comes as state and county officials prepare for a general election just 40 days away.

They are bracing for an unprecedented influx of absentee ballots as voters try to safeguard their health amid the pandemic and avoid in-person polling places.

Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Thursday election officials around New Mexico have received 247,725 absentee ballot requests already. That’s about 20% of all registered voters in the state.

Of the total absentee ballot requests, 158,860 are from registered Democrats and 48,430 are from Republicans, with independent voters and those affiliated with other political parties also accounting for some of the absentee ballot requests.

Due to virus concerns, voters will be required to wear face masks and follow social distancing guidelines if they opt to vote in person – or drop off their completed absentee ballot at a drop box – on Election Day or once early and absentee voting start next month.

“You should feel safe if you do decide to vote in person,” Toulouse Oliver said.

In addition to a high-stakes presidential race, an open U.S. Senate seat, all three New Mexico congressional districts and all 112 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot this year.

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