Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Bill McCamley spent Saturday morning directing traffic at the state COVID-19 testing site off Airport Road in Santa Fe. And he will be back Sunday. Traffic control isn’t ordinarily among his duties as Cabinet secretary for the state Department of Workforce Solutions.
But these aren’t ordinary times.
On Saturday, health officials announced 2,353 new cases of COVID-19 and 25 more deaths related to the virus – including a man in his 30s with no underlying conditions – across the state. It was a significant drop since the state saw a record high of 3,675 cases on Thursday, but it was also the fifth day in a row that New Mexico tallied over 2,000 new cases. The count pushed the seven-day average to a new peak of 2,326 cases.
With the virus spiking across the state, McCamley, joined by his agency’s division director and a deputy secretary, heeded a call sent out by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham late last week for state employees to help shore up staffing at state Department of Health coronavirus testing sites.
An estimated 200 state employees from various agencies are stepping up to address the demand for testing, and taking on other duties to fight COVID-19, such as contact tracing to alert people who have been exposed.
“When you have these exponential increases (in cases),” Lujan Grisham said at a public update last week, “we run out of actual people to do the work that’s necessary to carry out operations like testing and getting (test samples) to the laboratories.”
She noted that many of the state’s 106 test sites were full or weren’t open, but promised “immediate” expansion of the state’s testing capacity.
By Friday, state officials announced the opening of five new test sites in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. And hours of operation were increased at the primary DOH testing location – at Expo New Mexico in Albuquerque – which had been operating for two hours a day. Now it is to be open for nearly eight hours a day, six days a week, and a half-day on Sunday.
Prior to heading off Friday for training on nonmedical duties related to testing, McCamley told the state Legislative Finance Committee that his office has witnessed another side effect of the “crisis” among those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and need unemployment benefits.
“This job is pretty damn heartbreaking sometimes,” McCamley said during a budget session for his agency.”I’ve had calls from people saying, ‘I’m calling from my truck because I’m out of my house,’ or, ‘I’ve had my car repossessed.’ It’s hard right now. People need help.”
Lujan Grisham at a public briefing praised firefighters in New Mexico for joining the testing cause.
“Firefighters are responsible nearly 100% for getting us to a place where we can expand our large testing apparatus and sites in Bernalillo County. If they weren’t able to help us with registrations and swabbing and all that goes into effective samples … we could not do this. And I have no doubt that firefighters statewide are going to stand up and help us.”
But she cautioned: “Remember when they’re doing that they may not be available for another emergency. So we are stretched incredibly thin.”
McCamley said he’s received help from state employees at five other agencies earlier this year in processing the flood of unemployment claims since COVID-19 hit.
And in recent weeks, the Governor’s Office and the state Department of Health approached his agency to find staff for an alternate care site at the Gibson Medical Center in Albuquerque for COVID-19 patients to recover.
Staffing had been an impediment to opening the multimillion-dollar overflow facility designed to house up to 200 patients. McCamley said his agency searched its unemployment system and found 55 medical personnel who expressed an interest in working there.
State Rep. Rebecca Dow, R-Truth or Consequences, told the LFC last week that employees in the early childhood division of the New Mexico Public Education Department are helping with the rollout of COVID-19 testing using saliva. That’s less labor-intensive than nasal swabbing.
McCamley said it’s important to “get some relief” for overworked DOH employees at testing sites. State employees helping out with DOH duties are paid hourly. Top administrators, like McCamley, are salaried.
In the end, he said, the key to defeating the COVID-19 surge is for more people to wear masks, socially distance and avoid crowds.
“It’s very frustrating,” McCamley said. “We’d rather being doing our regular jobs.”