SANTA FE – Like other states, New Mexico’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has generated mixed responses – too rigid and heavy-handed according to some, and appropriately aggressive according to others.
But one thing that’s clear seven months into the pandemic that has upended the lives of state residents and led to more than 1,000 virus-related deaths is that New Mexico has been at heightened risk from the start.
One of the nation’s poorest states on average, New Mexico also has an increasingly elderly population – 18% of its residents were 65 or older as of last year – and a limited number of hospital beds and health care facilities.
“We are stricter because we have more issues than most states,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during a recent news conference.
As the face of the state’s coronavirus response, Lujan Grisham has drawn vocal criticism, but also national praise.
Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, said New Mexico was ahead of other states in taking such aggressive initial steps as closing schools and shutting down nonessential businesses to slow the spread of the virus.
“On the health side, I don’t think anyone can argue with her,” said Smith, who leaves the Legislature at the end of this year after his defeat in the primary election.
But he said there’s widespread frustration among residents of his southwest New Mexico district about restrictions imposed on schools and businesses.
“I’m apprehensive about what’s going on, but I don’t think I’m qualified to override the science,” Smith told the Journal.
Meanwhile, national media attention from Scientific American, The Washington Post and other outlets on New Mexico’s response came before a recent surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations that has propelled the state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases to a record high and reignited fears about the state’s health care system being overwhelmed.
In response to the spike, the Lujan Grisham administration has subtly shifted gears, enacting new requirements targeted at restaurants and other businesses, while eschewing the broader closures she ordered during the pandemic’s early stages.
The governor said she has urged the state’s business community to help enforce wearing face masks, social distancing and other COVID-19 guidelines in order to remain open.
An on-again, off-again cycle of shutdowns is “not sustainable,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview.
The governor, a former state health secretary, also said a lack of cooperation from some New Mexico officials – including some sheriffs who have flouted the state’s public health orders – has complicated her administration’s response.
Some sheriffs have argued it’s not their job to enforce orders not approved by the Legislature, even though the governor’s mandates have been upheld in several different court challenges.
“If you had interviewed me when I was health secretary, I would not have predicted that public health would become so politicized,” Lujan Grisham said.
High testing rates
Overall, New Mexico’s rate of COVID-19 deaths per 100,000 people – currently at 46.8 – ranks 25th highest in the nation, according to the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center.
That rate is lower than such neighboring states as Arizona and Texas, but higher than other western states, including Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Oregon.
Meanwhile, New Mexico has only the 35th highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per capita, suggesting those infected here are at slightly higher risk of dying than the national average.
New Mexico has also maintained one of the nation’s highest coronavirus testing rates, adjusted for its population, and is currently ranked in the top 10 nationally in that area, according to Johns Hopkins.
“I think people think we’re being too strict here,” Lujan Grisham said. “But I knew how dangerous and infectious this virus was.”
The governor also said about one in three New Mexicans suffers from chronic underlying health issues, such as diabetes and heart disease.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham has repeatedly criticized President Donald Trump’s administration for its handling of the pandemic and for leaving states to compete against each other for masks, gloves and other protective gear.
While New Mexico recently submitted a preliminary COVID-19 vaccination plan to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lujan Grisham said it could be another nine months before the state gets enough vaccine doses to cause the pandemic to ease its grip on New Mexico.
“I’m going to continue being a truth-teller,” she said.
Lack of unity
Critics of the state’s COVID-19 response say restrictions on businesses and schools have taken a toll on New Mexico residents’ mental and financial well-being.
Paul Gessing, president of the Albuquerque-based Rio Grande Foundation, a think tank that favors limited government and open markets, said he believes many New Mexicans have started to tune out the governor’s message.
“The economy has not been as much of a focus for the governor as I think it should have been,” said Gessing, who said he often does not wear a face mask when outside in public settings by himself, despite a state mask mandate.
He also said it’s not realistic to ask New Mexicans to stay home for an extended period.
“I think people are reasonable and are doing their best,” said Gessing, who acknowledged the danger posed by the virus while arguing most people infected make a full recovery.
In contrast, Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen, D-Las Cruces, lamented New Mexicans’ lack of unity in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, saying better compliance with the state’s public health orders would ultimately help the business community.
Papen praised the executive branch’s response to the pandemic, while also expressing concern about the number of businesses that have closed their doors for good.
New Mexico’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been rooted in modeling by state officials in conjunction with researchers at the state’s two national laboratories.
State health officials have also used cellphone data to track travel patterns of residents and visitors since the pandemic hit in mid-March.
Despite cries that such actions are government intrusion, the governor’s approach has proven popular, as a Journal Poll conducted before Labor Day found 60% of New Mexico voters approved of Lujan Grisham’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, while just 32% disapproved.
Given the recent spike in cases, Lujan Grisham said she’s nervous about the upcoming holiday season, despite her pleas that New Mexicans avoid large family gatherings.
But she said she’s hopeful there will be more public cooperation after Election Day.
Specifically, the governor contrasted Americans’ divided response to COVID-19 restrictions to that of British residents to Winston Churchill’s blackout directive to avoid nighttime bombings during World War II by turning off their lights at night.
“Imagine what we could do if we just all pulled together,” Lujan Grisham said.