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COVID cases explode; special session next week

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday provides an update on New Mexico’s pandemic response.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With New Mexico setting grim new COVID-19 records on a daily basis, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday she would call legislators back to the state Capitol next week to approve an expansive relief package for hard-hit businesses and workers.

Specifically, the governor said lawmakers could tap $300 million in unspent federal coronavirus relief funds to expand unemployment benefits, provide rental assistance and issue small-business grants during the special session.

“We want to get this relief out to New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference Thursday broadcast online.

The plan for the special session – set to happen Tuesday and likely last for just one day – came as New Mexico set another record high for new COVID-19 cases.

The governor announced 3,675 new cases – more than 25% more than the record set the day before – as the virus continued to spread like wildfire around New Mexico. There were 12 deaths statewide.

The state is now averaging 1,907 cases a day – more than at any other point in the pandemic, according to a Journal analysis.

Though many individuals infected ultimately recover, Lujan Grisham said the spike in new cases would mean more deaths and more hospitalizations due to COVID-19 in the coming days.

Already, hospital beds are filling up at an alarming rate statewide, as Human Services Secretary David Scrase said there were only 29 intensive care beds for coronavirus patients available statewide as of Thursday morning.

To help alleviate the strain, state officials plan to open an old Lovelace hospital in Albuquerque to provide more beds for those recovering from COVID-19.

Meanwhile, a total 262 of New Mexico’s total 1,302 deaths related to the virus – or slightly more than 20% – have occurred this month alone, according to state data.

“A Zoom Thanksgiving is better than an intensive care unit Christmas,” said Scrase, who urged New Mexicans to stay home for the holidays and limit their interaction with non-household members.

Of those tested in the last week, roughly 13.2% tested positive for COVID-19. By contrast, the positivity rate was at just 2% in mid-September.

With many New Mexicans encountering testing delays and lengthy wait times, Lujan Grisham said Thursday the state was working to expand testing but struggling to find enough workers to process the increased demand.

Economic relief package

Due to the exponential growth in COVID-19 cases, the Lujan Grisham administration last week ordered a two-week shutdown that directed non-essential businesses like hair salons and gyms to close their doors.

The order, which took effect Monday and runs through Nov. 30, also mandates that restaurants and breweries close for in-person dining, though they and other businesses can still provide takeout and curbside delivery.

The lockdown has generated widespread concerns among affected business owners, some of whom say they will lose income during the important holiday season, as well as their ability to pay bills.

Given that backdrop, Lujan Grisham said she hopes state officials can start getting “money out the door” to New Mexicans shortly after Thanksgiving, provided lawmakers approve the proposed package in the upcoming special session.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, told reporters Thursday the package would provide an extra $300 per week in jobless benefits for unemployed workers for four weeks’ time.

“With this change, we’re going to be seeing a substantial increase in those checks,” Egolf said.

He also said lawmakers might be able to conduct the special session in a matter of hours with one bill that would take effect immediately upon signing by the governor.

The Roundhouse is expected to be closed to the public and lobbyists for the special session, and it’s unclear whether the state’s 112 legislators will be allowed to participate remotely or be required to cast votes in person. That will depend on whether the House and Senate can agree on rule changes at the start of the special session.

It would be the second special session of the pandemic – and the first time since 2001 that two special sessions have been called by a governor in a single year.

It’s a tough time to bring legislators back to Santa Fe, Lujan Grisham said, but said it’s necessary to ensure the state can quickly provide economic aid to those who need it.

“We’re in trouble,” the governor said, “and there’s no time to waste.”

Old Lovelace hospital to open

Lujan Grisham and other state officials also announced the Department of Health will open the old Lovelace hospital in Albuquerque on Friday to help people recovering from COVID-19. An initial 50 beds will be available at the facility, called the Gibson Medical Center.

About 25 beds will be available for “step-down nursing-level care” and another 25 beds can be used for isolation or quarantine.

It will be staffed by unemployed health care workers – mostly nurses or certified nurse assistants – recruited to serve as temporary state employees. The state’s Medical Reserve Corps will supplement the staff, and the New Mexico National Guard may help if needed.

“This facility will alleviate some of the immense pressure (on) our state health care system which is rapidly becoming overcrowded and taxed under the shroud of this pandemic,” Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins said in a statement.

The medical center will open with six patients on Friday, Scrase said.

Even before the pandemic, Lujan Grisham said, New Mexico has had fewer hospital beds per capita than the nation as a whole, in addition to facing shortages of doctors and other health care providers.

Along with other governors, Lujan Grisham took part in a phone call Thursday with President-elect Joe Biden that touched on COVID-19 testing and distributing a not-yet-approved vaccine for the disease.

The governor has been touted as a possible Cabinet pick in the Biden administration – particularly for the U.S. Health and Human Services Department – but reiterated Thursday that she is focused on fighting COVID-19 and helping New Mexicans.

If 10 at Thanksgiving, risk high

With Thanksgiving approaching, Scrase shared data showing the odds that a 10-person group will include at least one person present infected with COVID-19.

In Chaves County, there’s a 54% chance that one of the attendees already has the coronavirus, according to the figures he shared. In Bernalillo County, the odds are 27%, and in Eddy County, it’s 33%.

“Thirty-three percent is not a low risk of getting a potentially fatal disease,” Scrase said.

While no parts of the state have been immune, Bernalillo County has seen a particular explosion of new cases, with 1,122 reported Thursday.

Six of the state’s top 10 ZIP codes for the most cases are in Albuquerque – 87121 (West Mesa), 87105 (South Valley/Southwest Mesa/Mesa del Sol), 87120 (Taylor Ranch), 87114 (Paradise Hills/Ventana Ranch/North Valley), 87123 (Southeast Heights/Carnuel) and 87108 (International District).

ZIP codes in Santa Fe, Hobbs, Las Cruces and Clovis round out the top 10.

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