Virus takes hold in tiny Native American communities

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Coronavirus cases have surged in central and northwestern New Mexico as the illness took a stronger hold on two Native American pueblo communities and a retirement home, officials said Tuesday.

The New Mexico Department of Health reported one new death related to COVID-19 involving a man in his 30s with underlying health problems. The state has nearly 800 infections.

Cases climbed to at least 52 in San Felipe Pueblo, a community of 2,200 people. At Zia Pueblo, there were at least 31 cases.

Albuquerque had 42 new infections and there were 24 new cases in San Juan County along the borders of Arizona, Colorado and Utah.

Meanwhile, state labor officials took new steps to speed the distribution of unemployment benefits to tens of thousands of New Mexico residents who have been left without work by the statewide public health emergency that closed many nonessential businesses.

Unemployment call centers temporarily extended hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for the rest of the week, though residents were still encouraged to file unemployment claims online.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley announced an automatic adjudication process for unemployment claims that can speed up the delivery of benefits. Under federal guidance, the state also waived a waiting period for the initial delivery of unemployment benefits that can result in an extra check for existing beneficiaries.

The State Investment Council on Tuesday approved the creation of a $100 million loan fund to help New Mexico businesses affected by the coronavirus outbreak, as officials look for ways to address the economic strains being felt across the state.

The fund will provide low-cost recovery loans to businesses that have at least 40 employees. The goal is to fill gaps left by existing loan programs offered by the New Mexico Small Business Investment Corp., the private banking sector and federal grants.

“As we battle the pandemic, we’ve got to explore every avenue for both protecting public health and assuring economic relief for affected individuals and businesses,” said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a member of the investment council.

Many businesses were forced to close as the state began issuing public health orders aimed at limiting large gatherings and social contact and getting people to stay home. There are now limits on how many people can be inside grocery stores, for example.

State officials on Tuesday reiterated their pleas for people to stay home, especially as the Easter weekend approaches. Annual pilgrimages to El Santuario de Chimayo in northern New Mexico and Tome Hill south of Albuquerque have been cancelled due to the imposed health order prohibiting gatherings of five or more people.