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New Mexico governor sets mask mandate, requires vaccination

August 17, 2021 GMT
An electronic billboard warns about increasing COVID-19 cases as traffic passes Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Rio Rancho, N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday she would be reinstating a mask mandate for all public places regardless of vaccination status and requiring certain workers, including those at schools and medical facilities, to be vaccinated. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
An electronic billboard warns about increasing COVID-19 cases as traffic passes Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Rio Rancho, N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday she would be reinstating a mask mandate for all public places regardless of vaccination status and requiring certain workers, including those at schools and medical facilities, to be vaccinated. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)
An electronic billboard warns about increasing COVID-19 cases as traffic passes Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021, in Rio Rancho, N.M. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Tuesday she would be reinstating a mask mandate for all public places regardless of vaccination status and requiring certain workers, including those at schools and medical facilities, to be vaccinated. (AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday she will be reinstating a mask mandate for all public indoor spaces in New Mexico as vaccination rates remain stagnant and infections increase.

Her latest public order also will require that more people get vaccinated, such as workers at hospitals, nursing homes, juvenile justice facilities, residential treatment centers and other places that the state deems as high-risk.

All workers at private, public and charter schools in New Mexico also must be either vaccinated or otherwise submit to weekly testing under the new rules being rolled out. Lujan Grisham already requires the same of all state government employees.

The governor recently said that all options would be on the table when it comes to curbing the spread of the virus, leaving residents and business owners anxious about the possibility of resuming some of the restrictions that had been enacted for much of the pandemic.

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Lujan Grisham said during a virtual briefing that she was making “tough but necessary decisions” now in hopes that infections level off in September and start to decline at least by November or December. Modeling by the state has shown that daily case totals could top 1,000 by late August or early September.

“This surge is a terrifying indicator of moving absolutely in the wrong direction, and hospital systems around the country are failing,” she said, adding there are not enough health care workers or hospital beds to treat COVID-19 patients or others with unrelated conditions.

New Mexico Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said ahead of the briefing that everyone wants the pandemic to be over but that the virus has its own timeline. He also noted that the delta variant is spreading up to four times more rapidly than the strain of the virus that was more prevalent last year.

While vaccines help to prevent serious illness and death from a COVID-19 infection, Scrase said the bad news is that the virus is still spreading.

New Mexico has outpaced neighboring states and the nation as a whole when it comes to getting people vaccinated. About two-thirds of residents 18 and older have been fully vaccinated, but state health officials warned again Tuesday that evidence shows inoculated people can still become infected and spread the virus.

The state Health Department did not immediately provide details about the number of breakthrough cases recorded so far.

The overall uptick in cases comes as New Mexico prepares for large public gatherings — such as the state fair and the international balloon fiesta, which normally draws thousands of spectators and pilots from around the world.

As part of the latest public health order, proof of vaccination will be required for anyone attending the state fair and the governor said she is encouraging organizers of the balloon fiesta to consider similar requirements and other precautions.

Lujan Grisham stopped short of saying New Mexico would require vaccine passports. However, she encouraged local governments and private businesses to set their own indoor mask mandates and vaccination requirements, saying the two tools can help slow down transmission.

The state Health Department has recorded more than 221,000 COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began. While the daily case totals remain far below the peak seen in the winter, state data shows there has been a 4.5% increase in confirmed cases since the beginning of August.

Scrase said the positivity rate among those getting tested also has increased from just 2.5% in July to 9% as of Monday.

Some Republican lawmakers criticized the governor’s latest health order, saying the vaccine mandates could result in the loss of more health care workers at a time when there already are shortages, especially in rural communities.

“The last thing we need is a forced shortage of health care workers and possible hospital closures due to a lack of staff,” state Sen. David Gallegos of Eunice said in a statement. “In an effort to solve a health care scare, the governor may in fact be creating another health care crisis. A bed shortage is not as severe as a doctor, nurse and hospital shortage.”

Lujan Grisham argued that she’s trying to ensure “our health care system doesn’t fall apart” by limiting infections.

State officials said Tuesday there are about 340 people hospitalized due the virus. That’s nearly double the number two weeks ago.