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Governor gives counties incentives to slow spread of virus

Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday provides an update about New Mexico’s pandemic response.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – New Mexico’s shift in virus strategy – from statewide to county-level business restrictions – is designed to provide incentives for communities to expand testing and step up their own efforts to blunt the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Monday.

But critics said it could take months for counties to shed the most stringent restrictions under the new red-to-green approach, which is to take effect Wednesday as part of a revised public health order.

To move out of the red level, which all but one of New Mexico’s counties will start in, a county must hit at least one of two statistical targets – one on the share of virus tests that come back positive, the other on the number of new cases per capita each day.

Persuading more residents to get tested, for example, could help a county drive its test positivity rate below 5%, allowing it to move into the health tier that permits indoor restaurant dining at partial capacity. Bernalillo County’s positivity rate now stands at 18%, Doña Ana County’s rate is 22% and Santa Fe County’s is 15%.

The state is also nowhere near the second target. The statewide rate of new cases stands at roughly 79 for every 100,000 people, nearly 10 times the target, which is just eight cases.

Local leaders and their communities will have to pull together, Lujan Grisham said, to reach the targets and reopen more of the economy.

“I think this new strategy can be successful,” Lujan Grisham said, “or we wouldn’t do it.”

The governor’s remarks came in a remote news conference broadcast online Monday. She and Human Services Secretary David Scrase said New Mexico’s virus numbers show some positive trends, although hospitals and health care workers remain under tremendous strain.

The state recorded 1,684 new virus cases Monday, continuing a downward trend in reported cases over the past week.

Scrase said the daily numbers are still fluctuating, but new infections may be leveling off. New Mexicans also seem to be traveling less, according to cellphone data, a “heartening” sign, he said.

“There may be some cause for optimism here,” Scrase said.

But Lujan Grisham also reported 28 additional deaths related to coronavirus. Two recent deaths, she said, were adults in their 30s without pre-existing health conditions.

Scrase said hospitals had “very few beds left” and faced staffing challenges. Eighteen health care workers in the state have died of the virus, he said.

The governor said 876 coronavirus patients were hospitalized as of Monday, 146 of whom are on ventilators.

Local involvement

The new red-to-green system is similar to the county-based approach adopted by California and some other states.

Earlier in the pandemic, Lujan Grisham had largely stuck to statewide health orders and resisted calls to ease restrictions in any particular county.

But she said the new restrictions provide an incentive for local leaders and communities to boost testing and limit the spread of the virus.

“We are going to empower local governments and constituents to work more closely together so we can move the entire state to green,” the governor said.

However, some state Republicans said the policy shift was overdue and pointed out that state officials will still be setting the criteria for business restrictions.

“While we appreciate she is taking a new approach that looks at each county differently, the fact remains her reopening standards are so high it will be months before any of our 33 counties can fully reopen,” said House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia.

There could also be logistical difficulties.

In sparsely populated Harding County, which had an estimated population of 625 as of last year, local businesses have mostly folded and most residents have to travel to another county to buy groceries or medication, County Manager Jennifer Baca said.

“However the easing happens, it really won’t make much of a difference for us,” Baca told the Journal.

“Our county does no business within itself – it’s all county to county,” she added.

Lujan Grisham acknowledged there’s a risk that people could undermine the regulations by traveling to another county with a less restrictive order. But she said the circumstances make the new strategy worth trying.

Statistical targets

The change in strategy comes after a roughly two-week statewide order that shut down much of New Mexico’s in-person business activity in an attempt to slow the explosive growth of the virus.

Under the new red-to-green system, the entire state – except Los Alamos County – is expected start at the red level, the most stringent restrictions in the new three-tiered system. Los Alamos County is scheduled to start at yellow.

But it’s still less restrictive than what is currently in place. Counties in the red zone can allow outdoor dining and trips to the gym, hair salon and most other businesses – all at partial capacity.

Scrase said the statistical targets provide an incentive for aggressive testing at the county level. Any community that gets its test positivity rate to 5% or less can move from red to yellow.

Reaching the green level, the least restrictive category, requires a county to hit both targets – the 5% positivity rate and fewer than eight new cases a day for every 100,000 people.

New Mexico last met the positivity standard in early October and the case target in late September.

Thanksgiving effect

While the impact of Thanksgiving gatherings remains to be seen, Scrase and Lujan Grisham said New Mexicans have already shown they can alter the trajectory of the virus by staying home more, wearing masks and engaging in social distancing.

The statewide COVID-19 testing positivity rate, or the percentage of those tested who test positive, fell to 18% over the seven-day period that ended Saturday – still incredibly high, but an improvement over the peak of 24% at one point last week.

And the transmission rate of the disease has fallen just below 1.0, meaning case totals should level off or decline. The Department of Health calculated the spread rate at 0.97 Sunday, down from 1.3 about three weeks earlier.

But there are trouble spots, as Roswell and Gallup posted the nation’s two highest averages for new COVID-19 cases per day over the past two weeks, Scrase said.

Both New Mexico cities averaged more than 170 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over that period.

“We’re in a crisis situation still,” Lujan Grisham said.

What about hair salons, tattoo parlors and nail salons?

For red counties, such “close-contact businesses” can reopen their doors at 25% capacity or with no more than 10 people inside at one time, whichever is smaller. The thresholds would gradually relax as counties enter yellow and green levels. Spas and massage therapy services are also classified as close-contact businesses.

Can ski areas open?

Yes. Ski areas will be allowed to open Wednesday, regardless of which county they are in. But they will be limited to 25% capacity – a figure determined based on ski lift capacity – and will have to abide by special state guidelines that include regular COVID-19 testing of employees. And only those in the same travel party can ride together on chairlifts.

What’s the status of restaurants?

For restaurants in red-level counties, no indoor dining is allowed and outdoor dining is limited to 25% capacity. Also, eateries and breweries serving alcohol must close at 9 p.m. daily. Restaurants in yellow and green counties will be able to open indoor dining at limited capacity, with a 75% capacity limit for outdoor dining. The curfew moves to 10 p.m. for restaurants in yellow counties and goes away in green counties. To be considered an outdoor dining space, a patio must be open on at least three sides when in use.

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