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Study: Session risk depends on format, testing, masks

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, center, sits on the rostrum of an almost empty House chamber at the start of the special session of the Legislature in November. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — A proposal to hold legislative committee hearings at the Santa Fe Community Convention Center would create a “medium high” risk for an outbreak of COVID-19 infections, according to statistical modeling by Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But the Legislature could reduce the risk substantially by opting instead to hold virtual committee hearings, reducing the number of floors sessions, testing legislators and staff regularly, and achieving broad compliance with a face mask requirement.

The findings are outlined in a 48-page modeling report.

Each scenario assumed public participation would be limited to online meetings, without in-person testimony or interactions at the Capitol.

The Los Alamos study found a wide range of outcomes based on how legislators and staff conduct the session, even without members of the public present. The study generally assumed one infected person present in the Capitol, then simulated the spread after that.

The number of new cases triggered could vary from about 160 in one scenario to just two in another.

One option analyzed by Los Alamos scientists, for example, estimated that a 60-day session with in-person floor meetings but online committee hearings would result in more than new 30 infections, based on certain assumptions. But regular testing of legislators, staff and others could cut the new infections to under five, depending on the level of compliance with a mask requirement.

It was classified as a “medium low” infection risk.

Another option found that holding just a 14-day session — also with virtual committee hearings — could result in just one or two new infections. Los Alamos rated the infection risk “low.”

The actual number of new infections would vary, of course, depending on conditions outside the Roundhouse and other factors. But the model demonstrates the scale of the difference among the different options.

Every scenario found enormous impacts from mask wearing and regular testing.

“Weekly testing of legislators and staff with 14-day quarantine for all positive cases reduces the risk by 80%,” the report states. And the “higher the facemask compliance (from 50% to 80%), the greater the reduction in COVID-19 risk.”

The highest risk scenario — resulting in up to 160 new infections — was to hold a regular 60 day session with committee hearings at the Capitol and no mask wearing or testing.

Holding committing hearings at the convention center could result in more than 40 new infections, with 10 or fewer new cases depending on testing and mask compliance.

The findings come as New Mexico lawmakers wrestle with how to conduct the 2021 session. The state Constitution calls for a 60-day session beginning Jan. 19.

A panel of high-ranking lawmakers is set to meet next week to weigh their options.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said the Los Alamos study shows that New Mexico can hold the session safely, even amid an unprecedented pandemic.

“By going largely virtual, limiting crowded floor sessions, and testing participants regularly,” he said in a written statement, “we can and will accomplish the monumental task of passing legislation that addresses the needs of New Mexico’s hardworking families and in accordance with our state’s Constitution.”

House Minority Leader James Townsend, R- Artesia, said the study bolsters his contention that the safest option is to hold a limited session dedicated to the budget and other work that must be handled immediately, with a broader special session held later once vaccines are widely available.

Virtual committee hearings, he said, aren’t adequate for robust public testimony.

“We need a legislative session that allows the people input,” Townsend said in an interview.

Each of the scenarios analyzed by Los Alamos assumed the public would participate virtually — through web conferencing programs and the like. The Capitol itself was closed to the public, for example, in two special sessions the Legislature held this summer and fall.


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