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New Mexico Governor: ‘We’re on hold’ as virus cases climb

June 26, 2020 GMT
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks about the uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state and her decision to hold off on opening more of the economy during a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal via AP)
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks about the uptick in confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state and her decision to hold off on opening more of the economy during a news conference at the state Capitol on Thursday, June 25, 2020. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Efforts to open more of New Mexico’s economy are on hold because of an uptick in cases in recent days, a trend that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday called troubling and blamed on lax social behaviors.

The governor said during a briefing that a false sense of security has developed among Americans in general and that people are not being vigilant about staying home, wearing masks when they go out and keeping their distance from others.

She mentioned mask-less tourists in Santa Fe and said the majority of people she saw on her drive to the state Capitol had no face coverings. She pointed to residents who traveled to neighboring states for baseball tournaments and graduation ceremonies who ended up bringing the coronavirus home with them.

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She stressed that New Mexico’s stay-at-home order remains in effect and that people need to take the virus seriously or she could be forced to consider reverting to tougher restrictions that would include broader quarantines and citations if the trends continue in the wrong direction.

She also pointed to the risks presented by the exponential growth in infections in neighboring Arizona and Texas.

“We’re not an island. We’re touched by what’s going on in other states,” she said. “We can certainly be different and have a different outcome if we increase our vigilance.”

State health officials on Thursday reported 207 new COVID-19 cases, marking just the latest in a string of days in which the infection count has been climbing. The rate of spread also is trending up in most regions of the state, with the southwest and northeast making the biggest jumps.

In all, New Mexico has nearly 11,200 cases. The death toll stands at 485, including five new deaths reported Thursday.

Lujan Grisham said her administration had been monitoring the situation in hopes of targeting a timeframe for the second phase of the reopening, but the latest numbers are too much of a concern right now.

“We’re on hold,” she said.

Reversing the trend will depend on people’s social practices and behaviors, and she said she can’t predict if people will comply with the rules.

The markers state health officials are monitoring include the number of cases, testing capacity, contact tracing and the number of available intensive care beds at hospitals around the state.

State officials also have been struggling with the outbreak among inmate populations.

About 80% of inmates at a prison in Otero County in southern New Mexico have tested positive for the coronavirus. The outbreak started in early May when officials learned a staff member was infected.

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The state Department of Corrections and Department of Health held a joint news conference Wednesday to discuss measures being taken to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Otero County and at the state’s other prisons.

Those measures included testing and quarantining all incoming prisoners at the Central Correctional Facility in Los Lunas for 14 days before placing them in any other state prisons, as well as doubling inmates’ weekly issuance of hygiene and cleansing products.

Controlling outbreaks in close-quarter facilities such as prisons is problematic, epidemiologist Chad Smelser said.

“It’s efficient at moving around in populations, and it’s particularly good at the congregate setting such as this,” he said.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

When the pandemic was declared, the American Civil Liberties Union and criminal defense attorneys began calling for the state to reduce inmate populations in hopes of preventing a potential outbreak.

Lujan Grisham and the corrections secretary rejected that strategy. Instead, the governor ordered the release only of inmates who fit specific criteria and are within 30 days of their release dates. About 71 inmates have been released since April.

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