Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
A voluntary coronavirus testing surveillance program introduced by the state Tuesday will allow essential businesses to remain open, even if they have four or more COVID-19 rapid responses.
A rapid response is initiated when one or more employees at a workplace tests positive for COVID-19, and it involves isolating people who are infected and quarantining those who have had close contact with them, among other measures. New Mexico’s current public health order allows the state health department to order a workplace to close if it has four or more rapid responses within 14 days.
The change comes as New Mexico grapples with a surge of infections, reporting 2,107 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the state’s rolling weekly average to 2,672 cases a day. This time last month, the average sat at 671 cases a day. Another 28 New Mexicans died from the virus, according to the Governor’s Office, bringing the state’s death toll to 1,428. The deceased ranged in age from their 50s to their 70s, and all but seven of them had underlying conditions.
Under the new testing program, employers must submit a detailed plan for surveillance testing and contact tracing, and agree to test employees on a regular basis, New Mexico Environment Department spokeswoman Maddy Hayden said in a news release.
Any positive tests discovered as a result of surveillance testing will not count toward a mandatory 14-day closure, but will still be logged in the rapid response system, she said.
“The agreements not only allow essential businesses to avoid a 14-day mandatory closure, but also clear a path for businesses currently closed to be allowed to reopen before the 14-day period is over,” Hayden said.
James Kenney, Environment Department secretary, said the new program will incentivize businesses to participate in the testing program by allowing businesses to stay open, while also helping public health efforts.
“Once a person tests, they can keep working, right, that’s the idea,” he said. “… With proactive testing, you’re looking for it, you’re looking for those asymptomatic individuals.”
The original rapid response program – which allowed the state to shutter any business for 14 days following four rapid response cases in a 14-day period – was met with criticism after more than 10 grocery stores across the state were forced into temporary closure following outbreaks among employees.
City leaders from Roswell to Santa Fe questioned whether grocery store closures would increase pressure on nearby stores or disproportionately impact low-income residents living near closed grocery stores.
Santa Fe City Councilor Roman Abeyta, who represents the city’s Southside, where three grocery stores were shut down in recent days, said the change is a step in the right direction. He said Southside grocery store closures have consequences beyond a disruption in regular grocery shopping.
“It’s not just about getting groceries for the residents on the Southside, but it’s also a lot of our residents work in these stores,” he said. “Hopefully, with these new measures, we can reopen, but also still stay safe for the shoppers and the employees.”
Essential businesses currently closed will be able to reopen following a coronavirus test for every employee, Kenney said.
“I think people will be glad to know that their neighborhood grocery store who’s participating will be open sooner,” he said.
Participating businesses must test all employees every two weeks for the coronavirus, establish a COVID-19 coordinator or team to assist with contact tracing and follow other COVID-safe practices. Companies with more than 50 employees must set up their testing regime at their own expense.
Kenney said that, while more people will be tested under the new program, he does not expect an increase in result times because larger businesses will be testing at private companies.