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NM’s virus spread ‘on fire’

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham holds a remote press conference from her residence about the New Mexico’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic Monday.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With New Mexico “on fire” with record-shattering coronavirus case growth, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed Thursday to ratchet up enforcement of state orders dealing with travel and business restrictions, while also suggesting more drastic shutdowns could be in the works.

Driven in part by a rapidly spreading outbreak at the Bernalillo County jail, state health officials reported 672 new virus infections on Thursday – about 100 more than the previous record, set just a day earlier.

“The reality is, we’re in uncharted waters,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference broadcast online. “This is the most serious emergency New Mexico has ever had. The health risks are extreme for every single New Mexican.”

The growth is starting to strain the state’s health care system, state officials said.

Hospitalizations have climbed 74% since the beginning of the month, the governor said, and some intensive care units in Albuquerque have already reached capacity.

“Our hospitals,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said, “are now getting quite full. … This is about hospital capacity for every New Mexican.”

Already, the Lujan Grisham administration announced plans this week to issue a revised public health order that – effective Friday – will limit gatherings to no more than five people, reduce maximum hotel occupancy and impose a 10 p.m. closing time on establishments that serve alcohol.

In addition, the governor said New Mexico will stiffen its quarantine order for travelers into the state, eliminating an exemption that allowed visitors from high-risk states to avoid quarantine if they tested negative for the virus and requiring a 14-day quarantine period.

The travel quarantine has not been actively enforced to date, but Lujan Grisham said that will change.

Specifically, she said Game and Fish officers and other state employees could be enlisted to help issue citations, in addition to enforcing other parts of the state’s public health order.

The governor said the state’s recent explosion in cases may be due to New Mexicans growing tired of the virus restrictions and increasingly flouting face-mask requirements and bans on large gatherings.

“We’re not succeeding in combating the virus – the virus is winning,” said Lujan Grisham, who added she would continue self-isolating at her official residence in Santa Fe despite testing negative twice for COVID-19.

She began working from home about two weeks ago after being possibly exposed by a custodial worker.

“Given the state of emergency that I think we are in, I’m going to continue to self isolate,” the governor said.

The surge in COVID-19 cases has also hit the University of New Mexico football team, as eight Lobo football players and one assistant coach tested positive for the coronavirus on Wednesday.

That prompted UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez to halt practice and team activities on Thursday.

The recent spike in cases is also renewing criticism from state Republicans who have urged the governor to further relax business restrictions.

“The governor has devastated the economy in New Mexico with her forced economic shutdown, yet the recent COVID cases continue to rise,” House GOP whip Rod Montoya of Farmington said in a statement. “At what point does she stop blaming the people of this state who are under her restrictions, and when do we start holding the governor accountable for her mismanagement of this crisis?”

‘Rapid spread’

As of Thursday, New Mexico’s seven-day rolling average of new virus cases stood at 458 a day – five times more than the average just after Labor Day, according to a Journal analysis.

At least some of the increase is due to virus outbreaks at an Albuquerque homeless shelter and the county jail, though health officials say COVID-19 is spreading quickly throughout the state.

Of the 303 new cases reported Thursday in Bernalillo County alone, 146 were recorded at the Metropolitan Detention Center, said Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett.

However, a spokeswoman for MDC said the jail recorded 131 new cases, 129 among inmates and two among corrections officers.

According to the Department of Health, the spike puts the year-to-date total at MDC to 432 cases, 414 among inmates and 19 among staff, though some may be duplicates. The majority of those cases have sprung up since Oct. 1 as the virus runs rampant through the facility.

Meanwhile, hospitalizations around New Mexico are also climbing quickly – up to 150 patients on Thursday – though deaths haven’t increased a corresponding amount.

The state has averaged about three deaths a day over the past week, compared to the peak of 10 deaths a day on average in mid-May.

The state announced just one death Thursday, pushing the statewide total to 922. By comparison, the governor said, the state lost 197 people to the flu last year.

Statewide, COVID-19 cases are currently spreading among all age groups, Scrase said.

While coronavirus testing levels have increased in recent weeks, Scrase said that’s not the reason for the state’s surge in new cases.

“This is not about more testing,” he said. “This is about the rapid spread of the disease.”

‘Like a car on ice’

The governor also said Thursday she is prepared to impose further restrictions if the virus spread continues to spiral out of control.

That could include reducing the maximum capacity allowed in retail stores and reimposing a ban on indoor restaurant dining. A previous restaurant dine-in ban prompted an unsuccessful court challenge before it was eased in August.

“I’m prepared to make another really tough decision” if the numbers don’t improve, Lujan Grisham said, while adding she does not want to enact such restrictions due to their economic impact.

For now, she said she hopes New Mexicans will recommit to staying home as much as they can and wearing a mask in all public settings.

Even if the restrictions starting Friday succeed, it will take some time to show up because of the way the disease progresses, Scrase said.

“We’re like a car on ice,” Scrase said. “We can slam on the brakes today, but it’s going to take two weeks for the car to stop.”

Journal staff writer Matthew Reisen contributed to this report.

 

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