Editor’s Note: To mark the one year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting New Mexico, Journal city editor Martin Salazar had a one-on-one interview with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham about the decisions she made to combat the deadly virus.
Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Confirmation that the virus was already lurking in New Mexico came to the governor in a 1:30 a.m. call.
The lab tests that then-Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel had suspected would be positive for the novel coronavirus were indeed positive, and she delivered the unwanted news to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s top advisers in the early morning hours of March 11, 2020.
“I was really worried,” the governor said during a recent interview recounting the early days of the pandemic. “I knew that people were going to die, and there was a lot at stake here.”
Lujan Grisham, a former state health secretary, had been preparing for the inevitability of cases in the state for two months, and her administration had even run tabletop exercises, essentially going through scenarios for state responses to the virus.
Still, she was nervous when the moment actually arrived.
Her administration announced those first three positive cases — a Socorro County couple who had visited Egypt and a Bernalillo County woman who had traveled to the New York City area — in a 9:30 a.m. news release. Meanwhile, the governor was preparing to brief reporters and to appeal directly to New Mexicans to take steps to protect themselves and their communities.
The press event planned for that Wednesday was originally supposed to be a “big celebration,” with the governor signing the budget, marking the culmination of countless hours of work and negotiations with lawmakers, said Tripp Stelnicki, the governor’s communications director. But the positive cases left the governor’s staff “changing gears on a dime,” and the planned celebration morphed into a somber affair.
As she was gearing up for that 11 a.m. news conference, Lujan Grisham said, she was thinking about the huge task at hand — how to convince New Mexicans that a single positive case, or three, is enough to take the virus seriously.
Lujan Grisham was ready with public health orders aimed at putting a lid on virus spread, but in the back of her mind was the sense that “everyone’s going to feel like it’s an overreaction.”
She forged ahead anyway, declaring a public health emergency, announcing the cancellation of the popular Gathering of Nations, urging New Mexicans to avoid out-of-state travel and public gatherings of all kinds and pleading with people to wash their hands frequently.
“This is a serious situation,” the governor warned. But “I will use every tool and resource to keep us safe.” Later in the day, a fourth case was confirmed.
By that night, the Governor’s Office had also intervened to ban fans for the remainder of the state high school basketball tournaments, games that typically draw thousands of spectators.
Many at the time were comparing the coronavirus to the flu.
Among the earliest critics of the governor’s actions that day was Sen. William Sharer, a Republican lawmaker from Farmington who issued a statement mocking her.
“If we put this in perspective, many more people get sick and die from the seasonal flu in our state every year than have contracted COVID19 in the entire United States,” Sharer said in the statement issued about five hours after the governor addressed the state.
Nearly a year later, more than 186,000 New Mexicans have been infected with coronavirus, and 3,796 have died.
By contrast, the state had between 92 and 292 pneumonia and influenza deaths each year from the 2017-2018 through the 2020-2021 flu seasons, according to the state Health Department’s website.
Fewer infections but more deaths
Sharer last week doubled down on his criticism of the governor’s handling of the pandemic.
“Panic always causes more death and destruction than the underlying reason for the panic, and I believe that she induced panic,” he said.
Sharer said the governor “destroyed a lot of businesses,” and he asserted that New Mexico is no better off, and, in some cases, is worse off, than some states that didn’t impose stringent public health orders.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that while New Mexico had fewer virus cases per capita than 27 other states, including Arizona and Texas, it actually had a higher death rate than all but 13 states and New York City.
As of Thursday, New Mexico had 8,866 virus cases per 100,000 residents and 178 deaths per 100,000.
Lujan Grisham points out that New Mexico has a high percentage of minorities, such as Native Americans, who tend to be more vulnerable. Her administration has repeatedly noted that about one-third of the state’s adults have high blood pressure, for example, and about half have an underlying condition of some kind that could be a COVID-19 risk factor.
Lujan Grisham stressed that those realities are why she had to act decisively.
“We did more than other states to protect every single life, no matter how rural, no matter how poor, no matter how sick, no matter those risks,” she said.
Stelnicki, her communications director, said one model shows that if the governor had done nothing, the state would have thousands more COVID-19 deaths.
Fearing the worst
COVID-19 appears to have originated in China. News reports documented the spread of the mystery respiratory illness, first in China and then to other countries. On Jan. 21, 2020, the CDC announced the first confirmed case in the U.S. — a Washington state man in his 30s.
Lujan Grisham said that as she watched the virus spread in China she feared the worst: “Anything this contagious with worldwide travel, I saw a pandemic in the making.”
And having served as the state’s health secretary for nearly three years during the Bill Richardson administration and as the state secretary of aging under three governors, Lujan Grisham knew the state would be vulnerable if that were to happen.
“New Mexico is sicker, has less health care per capita, and that means that we’ve got lots of (people) with really high risk issues,” she said, later adding that because of those realities and because minority populations tend to have worse outcomes she realized early on that “we had to work harder.”
She called the early responses from the CDC and the World Health Organization “very limited, and, I think, late.”
“I have to admit that I had to convince my own Department of Health because they watch the signals from CDC, and they’re supposed to,” the governor said. “You don’t do things in a vacuum, and they were watching the World Health Organization. And I said, ‘Well, we don’t need those declarations to engage in emergency preparedness.’ ”
Lujan Grisham brought her Cabinet together while the Legislature was in session, and they began to plan. They started talking about acquiring personal protective equipment, where it would be stored, getting emergency managers clued in, how best to stand up Homeland Security’s emergency command center and putting together a medical advisory team. That medical advisory team, in turn, engaged Los Alamos and Sandia national laboratories, along with private labs, to model the potential spread of the virus if it arrived in New Mexico.
“I think that really put New Mexico at an advantage, because we were doing that in January, and other states didn’t even get to modeling until the summer,” she added.
In early April, that team was projecting between 2,100 and 4,700 COVID-19 deaths in New Mexico within the first 12 months, which is on target with what happened. Besides the partnerships with the labs, Lujan Grisham credited Dr. David Scrase, her Human Services secretary, and the medical advisory team with ensuring that the modeling looked at all the right factors.
The World Health Organization officially classified COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the same day New Mexico confirmed its first cases.
Sounding the alarm
Around the week that New Mexico saw its first case, the governor was sounding the alarm to top state lawmakers and the state’s sovereign tribal nations.
She said she got mixed reactions from legislative leaders from both parties, with some of them suggesting that the state should take a wait-and-see approach and hope that the pandemic wouldn’t be as bad here and that warm weather would curb its spread. Lujan Grisham said she argued against that approach, telling them that this virus was much more contagious than the flu.
In reaching out to the tribes, Lujan Grisham appealed to their desires to preserve their cultures.
“I called every single sovereign nation and said, ‘All I have right now is this sense of dread that if we don’t take very prudent, smart, serious measures to stop spread to the highest degree that you can and to do what I was calling at the time community containment strategies, elders will die, languages will be lost,’ ” she said. “…‘I have to do everything in my power, and I need you to do the same.’”
Lujan Grisham said one of her advisers suggested that the tribes wouldn’t shut down their casinos and other operations with so few cases, but, in fact, they ended up doing just that, and several tribes also imposed strict curfews and took extraordinary steps to protect their communities.
A few weeks later, she was reaching out to faith-based communities about the risk that Easter services posed. She told them she realized how important the holiday is but urged them to take steps to reduce the risk. The governor said she got buy-in from all but a few of them, and then her administration issued an executive order requiring houses of worship to adhere to the ban on gatherings of more than five people.
The administration was sued by Legacy Church over that health order and by restaurants and several others over other restrictions she imposed in an effort to curb the virus. The courts have, for the most part, sided with the governor, finding that she had the authority.
“It was tough, but I stand behind those decisions. They really did give us a much better situation over the summer,” she said. “As the country was sort of losing its battle and patience with COVID, and it was so politicized, we knew the fall was going to be hard, and we warned New Mexicans.”
It took seven and a half months for New Mexico to reach the grim milestone of 1,000 deaths, and just 82 days — from Oct. 30 to Jan. 20 — for the state to see an additional 2,000 virus deaths. New Mexico hospitals never had to ration care, but they came close, according to a Human Services Department spokeswoman.
“As soon as New Mexicans began to feel it and see it (the deaths) in their neighborhoods and communities, then you saw the political divide that became the next hardship,” Lujan Grisham said. She said the state is divided between those who want her to impose restrictions and keep things “really tight until everyone is vaccinated” and those who want to let the virus run its course, regardless of the death toll that would result.
“It’s terrible because you can’t really govern between those two extremes,” she said.
Others, she said, have called for the state to withhold vaccines from counties that refused to enforce the public health order or those where mask wearing was not embraced.
She rejects those calls, saying, “The only way through this pandemic is to stick together.”
The governor continues to face criticism for implementing some of the strictest restrictions in the nation, restrictions that have left some out of work. State officials have cited estimates that New Mexico will not return to pre-pandemic employment levels until late 2023. Lawmakers, meanwhile, are considering legislation that would limit the governor’s power to continue indefinitely emergency orders.
Lujan Grisham said she realizes the significant impact her health orders have had on New Mexicans and on businesses. She said she worries about the toll the pandemic has taken on first responders, on health care workers, on the private sector, on the public sector and on her own public health and government teams, noting that they’re exhausted.
“I hate the impact it’s had on so many New Mexicans,” the governor said. “It’s terrible, and it’s taken a huge toll.”
But she said her decisions were based on science and the goal of saving lives and that “standing with the science” has made a big difference.
“I know for us, unequivocally, it’s saved lives and got us through some pretty challenging health care and hospital crises that were unfolding right before our eyes.”