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State epidemiologist departs as New Mexico reopens economy

June 9, 2020 GMT
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham removes her face mask at the start of an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and the State's effort to limit the impact of the disease on residents, during a news conference at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday May 27, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham removes her face mask at the start of an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and the State's effort to limit the impact of the disease on residents, during a news conference at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday May 27, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s lead specialist for tracking and combating infectious disease is leaving the state Health Department amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Michael Landen retired as state epidemiologist to be closer to relatives in Virginia, where his parents live, said Health Department spokesman David Morgan.

Landen was appointed in 2012 under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and was a leading figure in the state’s response to the opioid epidemic before COVID-19 arrived in March.

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Deputy Epidemiologist Chad Smelser will lead the epidemiology and response division, while a nationwide search takes place for Landen’s successor, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced Tuesday. Smelser accompanied Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at news conferences in the early stages of the pandemic.

New Mexico aggressively pursued public health restrictions at the outset of the epidemic and this month allowed dine-in restaurants, shopping malls, gyms and hair salons to reopen at limited capacity.

A spike in statewide infections over the past week tied to an outbreak at prison facilities in Otero County has changed the outlook for New Mexico and efforts to safely reopen the economy.

The state on Tuesday reported an additional 47 positive tests, bringing the statewide total to more than 9,100 cases. The death toll stands at 404.

For most people, the 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.

In other coronavirus developments:

— New Mexico received an overall “trending poorly” grade Monday on a website frequently cited by state officials that tracks progress on infection rates, testing and hospital capacity and how states measures up against White House criteria for safely reopening the economy.

— The Las Cruces City Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution encouraging but not requiring that people wear face coverings inside commercial and retail businesses to mitigate coronavirus spread, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported. A measure shelved Friday by the council would have required face coverings, with violations punishable by jail time and fines.

— Tingley Beach and a mile-long outdoor path at the Botanic Garden in Albuquerque reopened Tuesday with reduced capacity. The zoo and the aquarium remain closed.

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This version corrects that Landen is moving to Virginia to be closer to relatives, not that he has accepted a job there.