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WED: State Boosts Vaccination Rates, Watchdogs Seek Environmental Review On Nuke Work, + More

Megan Kamerick
University of New Mexico vaccination clinic at The Pit

New Mexico Ramps Up Vaccine Distribution, Awaits SuppliesAssociated Press

Top health officials in New Mexico say the state has boosted the number of vaccines given daily by more than 20% over the past two weeks.

State Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said Wednesday during a briefing that New Mexico is ranked third in the nation for distribution, having administered nearly all the doses it gets every week.

So far, more than 450,000 shots have been given. About 7% of New Mexicans are fully vaccinated with their first and second shots. That's double the figure from two weeks ago.

Collins called it a supply and demand mismatch, saying the state will not be able to expand eligibility until more doses are shipped. The state's allocation has been growing in recent weeks and is expected to reach more than 72,500 next week, she said.

The state's vaccine dashboard also now provides details about vaccination rates based on race, ethnicity and age. It shows higher vaccination rates among those 75 and older and among those who are Native American.

Collins reiterated Wednesday that the goal is to distribute shots as equitably as possible, with the focus being those who are most vulnerable as a way to prevent more deaths.

The seven-day average case total has been trending downward over recent weeks. Just over 280 newly confirmed cases were reported Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 181,332 since the pandemic began last year. The death toll stands at 3,562.

Groups Ask Biden For Wider Environmental Review Of Nuke Work - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Watchdog groups want the Biden administration to reconsider a decision by a U.S. agency not to conduct a more extensive environmental review related to production of the plutonium cores used in the nation's nuclear arsenal.

The renewed request comes as federal installations in New Mexico and South Carolina face a deadline of making 80 cores per year by 2030. Jobs and billions of dollars in government spending are at stake.

The National Nuclear Security Administration said it has no plans to revisit the environmental review. But the agency has confirmed that its approach to plutonium core production is among the programs under review as the new administration takes over.

Nuclear Watch New Mexico, South Carolina-based SRS Watch and California-based Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment sent a letter to the U.S. Energy Department last week, asking that a rigorous environmental review be done before production is ramped up at Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico and the Savannah River Site near Aiken, South Carolina.

The groups have cited provisions of the National Environmental Policy Act saying plutonium core production would significantly increase the amount of radioactive and toxic wastes generated at the two locations and that the collective environmental effects need to be considered.

The nuclear security agency said in an email to The Associated Press that the issues raised by the groups were considered during previous public participation opportunities.

New Mexico Foresees More State Income From Oil In Short Run - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A rebound in oil and natural gas prices is changing the outlook for state government finances in New Mexico as the Legislature drafts a spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

A team of economists from three state agencies and the Legislature said Wednesday that state government income is likely to increase by $339 million during the fiscal year that begins July 1 to a total of $7.55 billion.

State government income would exceed current annual spending obligations by 2.3% if the new estimate holds true. Senate Finance Committee Chairman George Muñoz of Gallup said the state could be in a precarious financial situation when federal relief ends.

He said the unapproved federal relief plan proposed by President Joe Biden would provide as much as $1.6 billion to state government, another billion dollars for public education and $838 million aimed at local governments across New Mexico.

The state's looming financial challenges include a shortfall of at least $450 million in its depleted unemployment trust fund, for the current fiscal year that ends June 30.

Severance taxes and royalties on oil production account for most of the bump in forecasted state income, amid higher market prices for oil and surging local production in the final months of 2020.

Muñoz said he has written a letter to the White House asking for an exemption from a recent pause on oil lease and permit approvals on federal land. The Democratic senator believes permitting delays on pipeline infrastructure could make it harder to bring natural gas to market amid surging prices — and even lead to greater releases and burning of excess gas directly into the atmosphere.

Biden has vowed to cut greenhouse gas emissions from oil and natural gas. In January, the administration halted leasing, permitting and other approvals for petroleum development on federal lands by suspending for 60 days the regulatory authority of federal land managers across the country.

The stakes are high for New Mexico state government given its heavy reliance on revenue from oil and natural gas development to pay for basic services, from public schools to prisons.

New Mexico Churches Alter Practices For Ash WednesdaySanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Local churches in New Mexico have said services on Ash Wednesday will be altered in an effort to reduce further spread of the coronavirus.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that instead of priests applying ashes to foreheads in the shape of a cross, ashes will be sprinkled atop parishioners' heads to avoid person-to-person contact or distributed in individual containers to allow people to apply the ashes themselves.

The precautions are expected to complement state health guidelines that require masks and limit capacity for places of worship.

People who have excess ashes are encouraged to bury or sprinkle them on the ground as a way to return them to the earth.

Navajo Nation Reports 27 New COVID-19 Cases, 2 More DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation officials reported 27 new confirmed COVID-19 cases Wednesday with two additional deaths.

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah to 29,336 since the pandemic began. There have been 1,114 reported deaths that were related to COVID-19.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus.

The tribe has a nightly curfew in place from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. to limit the spread of the virus.

Bill On Civil Rights Lawsuits Passed By New Mexico House - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Legislators in the New Mexico House of Representatives have endorsed reforms to rein in police immunity from prosecution, voting 39-29 in favor of a bill that allows civil rights lawsuits in state court against a variety of local government agencies.

The vote Tuesday moves the bill from Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf and Rep. Georgene Louis to the state Senate for consideration.

In response to financial concerns voiced by local governments, sponsors amended the bill to cap liability for damages at $2 million. Liability applies only to government agencies and not individual public employees.

The bill raises the stakes on legal claims that are currently capped at about $1 million under state tort law.

The House vote fell along largely partisan lines with Republicans voting in opposition, joined by a handful of Democrats, including Reps. Derrick Lente of Albuquerque, Ambrose Castellano of Serrafina and Susan Herrera of Embudo.

Prospects for approval in the state Senate are uncertain amid opposition by local governments, school boards and police associations.

State Sen. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces is a co-sponsor. Last year he successfully ushered through the Legislature a red-flag gun law that can be used to remove firearms from people who pose a danger to themselves or others.

Native Americans Embrace Vaccine, Virus Containment Measures - By Sarah Blake Morgan Associated Press

Native Americans are bucking a trend of minority populations who harbor doubts about the coronavirus vaccines. 

Tribes across the nation are embracing inoculations, and also have been among the first in the country to adopt coronavirus containment measures. 

The trend owes itself both to a harsh reality — Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are four times more likely to be hospitalized from COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and tradition. Community before self has long been a core principle in Native American culture. 

Tribal leaders and health care providers say it is about preserving a fragile heritage that has been under threat for centuries.

The federal Indian Health Service said Tuesday that it has administered nearly 385,300 doses of COVID-19 vaccines. At a rate of about 18,490 per 100,000, that's higher than all but five U.S. states, according to an AP analysis of federal data. 

The Navajo Nation, the country's largest Native American reservation with about 175,000 residents in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, declared a public health emergency in March even before its first positive case was confirmed. 

A flurry of public health orders followed, including a mask mandate, shelter-in-place orders, daily curfews and weekend lockdowns. Tribal leaders banned mass gatherings and ordered the closure of schools, four casinos and other tribal businesses, along with tribal parks popular with tourists. 

The measures have taken an enormous financial toll. The casino enterprise laid off more than 1,100 workers in January after exhausting federal virus relief funding. It said it might be forced to close permanently if it cannot secure additional funding or partially reopen. 

The Navajo Nation recently lifted weekend lockdowns so that residents could be vaccinated. So far, the Indian Health Service has administered more than 90,000 doses in the Navajo-area region. With support from the federal government, the tribe hopes to hit 100,000 by the end of this week.

"Everyone is knocking down the door trying to get a vaccine," said the Navajo Nation's health director, Dr. Jill Jim.

Navajo Nation Reports 24 More COVID-19 Cases, No New Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials reported 24 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, but no additional deaths. 

The latest numbers bring the total number of cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah to 29,308 since the pandemic began. 

There have been 1,112 deaths reported related to COVID-19. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that even those who have been fully vaccinated need to continue taking precautions to avoid spreading the virus. 

He also commended health care workers for helping to get people vaccinated, especially when compared to the rate in areas surrounding the Navajo Nation.

Gathering Of Nations Powwow Canceled For 2nd Year In A RowAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The world's largest powwow has been canceled for a second consecutive year because of the pandemic.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Monday that the Gathering of Nations Powwow, typically held in Albuquerque, will be entirely online.

Gathering of Nations founder Derek Mathews says they can't hold the live event until the state opens up for large gatherings. He was told that the powwow won't likely be possible until April of 2022.

He also says it wouldn't be right to risk people's safety, especially considering how COVID-19 has devastated tribal communities.

Normally in the spring a string of powwows hosted by Native American tribes and universities would be underway across the U.S., with tribal members honoring and showcasing their cultures through dancing and singing in traditional regalia.

In 2019, the Gathering of Nations Powwow drew around 91,000 people from across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. It also led to an economic impact of $22 million for Albuquerque.

The virtual powwow will be held April 23-24 with dance performances and competitions livestreamed from various places.

Amid Pandemic, New Mexico Forges Path To Legal Cannabis - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico legislators are sprinting amid the pandemic to come up with a framework for regulating and taxing recreational marijuana after voters ousted key opponents of pot legalization in 2020 elections.

Four proposals backed by Democrats with a social justice bent are competing for traction at the Legislature, along with a Republican proposal aimed at stamping out the illicit pot market.

The Legislature has until March 20 to send a cannabis bill to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, an enthusiastic backer of marijuana as a tool of economic development and fiscal security for the state. 

The state's Constitution doesn't allow for ballot initiatives, leaving cannabis legalization to the legislative process.

The primary election in 2020 unseated several staunch legalization opponents, including the former top-ranked Senate Democrat.

Elections last year beyond New Mexico also are changing the political calculus, as four states including Arizona passed referendums allowing recreational marijuana.

A House panel on Monday advanced a bill that places an emphasis on economic and social issues by subsidizing medical marijuana for poor patients, underwriting grants for communities affected by drug criminalization and expunging convictions for cannabis use and possession.

Senate committees are poised to vet at least three separate proposals. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, an arbitration attorney by trade, says he's eager to bring a compromise bill to the floor.

Active opponents of legalization include Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, a former congressman who unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2018. But some prominent Republicans are seeking a seat at the cannabis negotiating table.

Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell is the top Republican on a judiciary committee tasked with recommending a final bill for Senate consideration. He says legalization is necessary to stamp out the illicit market, and he has introduced a bill that would funnel taxes on cannabis toward a road safety fund to underwrite training for "drug recognition experts" to identify drug-impaired drivers.

The bill leaves no room for homegrown marijuana that might complicate efforts to penalize people involved in black market cannabis.

The prevailing House bill would allow some homegrown marijuana for personal use and might open cannabis markets to be tribally controlled enterprises through state agreements.

It also provides "integrated cannabis microbusiness" — marijuana's version of a small winery that can potentially grow, package and sell cannabis products at one site.

New Mexico City's Disputed Statue Located At Private Home Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A New Mexico city's statue of a Spanish colonialist that was removed following disputes over its representation has been quietly kept at a private home for months.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the statue of Don Diego de Vargas was removed from a Santa Fe park in June on the orders of Mayor Alan Webber during tensions over local monuments.

Former City Councilor Ron Trujillo says he saw the statue but declined to identify the property to prevent vandalism.

City spokesman Dave Herndon says the statue has been in the same place since the mayor requested its removal.

Some New Mexicans have decried de Vargas as a symbol of Spanish colonization, while supporters have said de Vargas is a symbol of Hispanic pride for leading a peaceful resettlement.

The statue, which was donated to the city and installed in 2007, has been vandalized on multiple occasions. The statue was removed for repairs after a 2013 attempt to pry the figure from its base.

Webber called for the removal of the statue in June along with two other controversial monuments, the Santa Fe Plaza obelisk and the Kit Carson obelisk.

Herndon would not reveal where the city expects the de Vargas statue will be kept.