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Gov. warns NM at risk of ‘uncontrollable’ virus spread

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

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 Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham participates in a remote news conference from her home in Santa Fe, where she is in quarantine. She provided an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico.

SANTA FE – Quarantined at her official residence, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned Thursday that New Mexico is in danger of having to tighten business and school restrictions as a new wave of coronavirus infections explodes throughout the state.

While no immediate changes are being made to the public health order that expires next week, the governor made it clear the order will not be amended to allow high school and youth sports this fall.

Lujan Grisham also warned that New Mexico could become the nation’s next virus “epicenter” unless residents take steps to slow the spread of COVID-19, such as limiting their outings and wearing a face mask in all public settings.

“We are at extreme risk of uncontrollable spread,” Lujan Grisham said.

She spoke during a news conference broadcast from the governor’s residence in Santa Fe, where she is working from home after possible exposure to the virus.

The governor said both she and her fiance, Manny Cordova, tested negative for COVID-19 on Wednesday – their second negative test since the possible exposure. But both intend to remain in self-quarantine for a 14-day period.

After declining for much of August and early September, New Mexico’s number of new coronavirus cases has increased at an alarming rate in recent weeks.

The governor reported 387 new virus cases Thursday, a day after the state tallied its second-highest number of new cases since the pandemic began in mid-March.

And the state’s seven-day rolling average of reported cases now stands at 300 – or more than three times higher than the average on Sept. 12, according to a Journal analysis.

The governor compared the situation to extreme wildfire risk, saying New Mexicans have to do a better job in their daily lives of reducing possible exposure points.

“We still have time to get it under control,” Lujan Grisham said, “but it’s really narrow.”

Hospitalizations are also trending in the wrong direction, as the number of virus patients in New Mexico hospitals climbed to 119 on Thursday, an increase of 38% over the last week.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said hospitals around New Mexico are reexamining how to boost capacity if they need to, saying, “Our delivery-system partners are very nervous.”

While deaths related to COVID-19 levels have remained below peak levels from mid-April, state officials reported three additional deaths on Thursday – bringing the death toll from the pandemic to 899.

Meanwhile, the state’s recent uptick in cases has been among the most rapid in the nation in recent weeks.

“This is a list we don’t want to be at the top on, but unfortunately we are,” Scrase said.

Gatherings blamed

The state’s recent uptick in COVID-19 cases is not due solely to expanded testing, though the state’s testing capacity has increased in the last week.

New Mexico’s test positivity rate was at 9.7% on Wednesday – significantly higher than what it’s been in recent weeks – and the state’s virus spread rate has also increased.

In addition, Scrase said the state’s contact tracers – who call people who have tested positive – are reporting a host of concerning behaviors. Some people get tested and then continue going out while awaiting the results, only to find out they’re positive, he said.

And even a negative test, Scrase said, isn’t reason to think you’re in the clear, as the virus may not immediately show up on a test.

Scrase said people are returning to work in offices, increasing the risk of spread. Everyone in a workplace should be wearing a mask, he said, and avoid eating indoors.

Potlucks are “a great way to get an infection,” Scrase said.

Family gatherings and backyard barbecues, he said, also have been potential sources of disease spread.

About 25% of people who have tested positive – and had their case investigated by contact tracers – report having attended a gathering of some kind, according to state data. The figure has been climbing in recent weeks.

The other most-common activities reported are having visited restaurants and breweries or having traveled outside the state.

Scrase also said New Mexico this week received its first shipment of rapid virus tests from the federal government and said he expects the state to get about 630,000 such tests by the end of the year. Local scientists are now evaluating the tests for accuracy.

But the rapid antigen tests aren’t a panacea, Scrase said. They are best for people who have symptoms, he said, not for screening asymptomatic people who want to return to work or play sports.

Students back in school

The recent spike in cases comes as some New Mexico school districts have been given approval to bring younger students back to the classroom.

Despite virus safety measures, 91 teachers and 66 students have tested positive for COVID-19 statewide so far, Scrase said.

While no decisions were announced, the governor suggested such trends could influence state officials’ thinking about public schools.

“We are definitely trending in the wrong direction for going back to in-person learning,” Lujan Grisham said.

The governor also acknowledged that reimposing business restrictions – such as lowering the maximum capacity allowed in retail stores and restaurants – would have a damaging impact on the state’s economy, which has already been bruised by the pandemic.

New Mexico’s unemployment rate – which was 11.3% in August – has already been among the nation’s highest in recent months.

The state’s public health order runs through Oct. 16, though the Lujan Grisham administration can extend it or revise it before then.

The order currently restricts most businesses to partial capacity, requires the wearing of masks in public settings and bans gatherings of more than 10 people.

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