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State hopes more companies will join virus ‘surveillance’ program

Shoppers wait in a line outside a Santa Fe Albertsons Nov. 13. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — About 25,000 essential workers are now receiving regular proactive coronavirus tests as a part of New Mexico’s coronavirus surveillance testing program, state officials said.

The program was rolled out in late November, shortly after multiple grocery stores across the state were forced to close under COVID-19-related public health orders. Those orders mandated employers to close for 14 days if four or more employees received a positive coronavirus test. Blowback was swift, with critics saying grocery store closures created food deserts and longer lines at the remaining grocery stores.

Under the surveillance testing program, participating essential businesses can remain open even if the store crosses the four positive case benchmark – but businesses must agree to having all staff members tested for the coronavirus every two weeks.

Sandra Ely, the New Mexico Environment Department Environmental Protection Division Director, said 21 businesses with about 140 business locations are participating in the program – but she wants to see even more businesses sign on to the program.

“What we’re finding is a whole bunch more tests that I think we wouldn’t get otherwise, which may result in more positives, but it also means positives that are being addressed, positives that are being discovered, people that may be asymptomatic in the workplace that may not have been discovered otherwise are being discovered through these agreements,” Ely said. “What we’re really looking for is making sure that essential workers get tested regularly so that they don’t spread the virus to their fellow workers.”

So far, chain retailers and grocery stores like Walmart and Albertsons make up the bulk of businesses participating, but Ely said some smaller essential businesses like a veterinarian clinic and small hardware stores have also signed on.

Testing through the Department of Health is free to businesses with 50 or less employees, but businesses with more than 50 employees must pay for the testing through a testing company of their choice.

Ely said companies paying for the test must have the selected test approved by the DOH, however, the state is unable to provide businesses with a list of approved testing companies.

All essential businesses can participate by signing on to surveillance testing agreements.

Since the creation of the program, few essential businesses have had to undergo a 14-day closure. As of Tuesday, only one business – Choice Steel Company in Albuquerque – was closed, according to the state’s monitoring website. The company began the 14-day closure on Jan. 22 after having 11 rapid response positives between Jan. 8 and Jan. 15, according to the NMED website.

Prior to that, the last business to temporarily close was Builders FirstSource on Jan. 8. The company signed a surveillance testing agreement three days later on Jan. 11.



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