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KUNM News Update

THURS: Officials May Revamp County Virus Framework, State Sues Over Abandoned Wells, + More

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New Mexico Department of Health
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Latest county COVID-19 status map from New Mexico Department of Health

  

New Mexico To Consider Changes To County Virus FrameworkAssociated Press

Health officials in New Mexico are considering changes to the familiar color-coded dial system that determines county responses to the coronavirus pandemic, including public health restrictions.

The New Mexico Health and Human Services Department is now testing new methods after nine counties on Wednesday regressed to levels that warranted tighter limitations on business and restaurant capacities.

Health officials said the primary reason for the rise in COVID-19 infections is because of an increase in new confirmed cases. But Department Secretary Dr. David Scrase urged residents not to get discouraged.

"We know that the test positivity rate will likely go up as more people get vaccinated, so we are reconsidering 5% or less metric you can see. We also, now with the vaccine on board, we can tolerate a higher number of cases," Scrase said, noting that the department is reconsidering the 168 seven-day rolling daily case count.

Currently, the state assesses risk based on the average test positivity in a county and the per capita daily count of newly confirmed cases. But Scrase said the state hopes to announce a new method in two weeks, which proposes revisions to the test positivity rate and daily case count, removing the metric for PPE supply and adding county vaccination rates.

"While we are not happy younger individuals are more out and about and mixing with each other more and spreading COVID … as they are and we have those variants in the state … that are likely to spread more, I think we are experiencing an unbelievably positive benefit from all the great work New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins and state is doing to get New Mexico vaccinated," Scrase said.

More than 48% of New Mexico's population has received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 32% of the state is fully vaccinated.

New Mexico Sues Oil Company For Cleanup Of Abandoned WellsAssociated Press

The State Land Office on Thursday announced a lawsuit against two oil and natural gas companies, citing unmet obligations to plug at least 29 abandoned wells in western New Mexico, remove trash and debris and pay penalties for trespassing on an expired lease site.

The lawsuit against BC&D Operating and Dominion Production Company is the sixteenth in a campaign by the agency to increase accountability for cleanups among natural resources companies that lease state land.

Efforts to reach BC&D Operating and Dominion Production Company for comment were unsuccessful. The companies have no clear online listings, and corporate registrations with the state of New Mexico do not include contact information.

In a statement, New Mexico State Lands Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard indicated that her agency is seeking voluntary compliance with lease provisions before resorting to litigation.

"A lot of companies are proving willing to work with the State Land Office to clean up abandoned well sites," the statement said. "At the other end of the spectrum, we are taking decisive legal action against companies who walk away from their messes and responsibilities to the land."

The agency's announcement coincided with Earth Day. The new lawsuit concerns nearly a square mile of state trust land with 29 unplugged and 15 plugged well sites in McKinley County.

In the 1990s, BC&D Operating acquired leases that date back as early as 1922.

The State Land Office collects as much as $1 billion annually in revenue from a variety of business activities on state trust land to benefit public schools, hospitals and other institutions.

Oil and gas development accounts for the agency's largest revenue source. Wind energy projects and livestock grazing also are part of the mix.

During 2021, the agency has filed lawsuits for oil-site cleanups against at least three other energy companies, including Oxy USA.

New Mexico Among States Grappling To Reform Policing - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

In the aftermath of George Floyd's death and protests that followed, state lawmakers in New Mexico have eliminated police immunity from prosecution in state courts and enacted a flurry of reforms aimed at addressing racial inequities.

The conviction Tuesday of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin is shifting public attention toward reform efforts in dozens of states to provide greater police accountability. At the same time, many states have done little or nothing around police and racial justice reforms, or moved in the opposite direction.

New Mexico reined in police immunity from prosecution over the objections of local law enforcement agencies and county governments that can now be held liable financially in local courts for police brutality. Individual public employees are not subject to financial liability.

At the same time, legislation aimed at instilling greater accountability in the police disciplinary and certification process encountered stiff resistance and extensive revisions only to be vetoed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. She said that the final bill would have eliminated two seats on a law enforcement training board that provide civilian oversight.

Another bill fell flat that would have established statewide standards for the use of deadly force and new de-escalation training.

Albuquerque has strived for years to rein in police brutality and implement reforms under a consent decree with the Department of Justice.

The state's Democrat-led legislature also pushed through a prohibition on discrimination based on traditional hairstyles and head coverings, and a new law requiring anti-racism training for public school personnel.

Police can no longer conduct spot searches based on the smell of cannabis in New Mexico, under a bill signed this month to legalize recreational cannabis. Home-grown pot and possession of up to 2 ounces (56 grams) of marijuana becomes legal on June 29.

The anti-immunity bill, signed by Lujan Grisham with the trial of Chauvin underway, opens the way for civil rights lawsuits in state courts against public employees ranging from sheriff's deputies to school teachers. That's broader than similar legislation enacted in Colorado and Connecticut.

Jill Biden To Visit Navajo Nation, Once Floored By COVID-19 - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Jill Biden is traveling to the country's largest Native American reservation, the Navajo Nation, which was hit hard by the coronavirus but is outpacing the U.S. in vaccination rates while maintaining strict pandemic restrictions.

The trip Thursday and Friday will be Biden's third to the reservation that spans 27,000 square miles (70,000 square kilometers) in the Four Corners region, and her inaugural visit as first lady.

She's expected to meet Navajo officials in the tribal capital of Window Rock, named for an opening in a red sandstone arch and where the tribe established a veterans memorial. She'll also visit a boarding school and a nearby hospital that has been administering vaccines, both of which the tribe runs under contract with the federal government.

The trip comes as the Navajo Nation marked 10 consecutive days with no known COVID deaths and far fewer daily cases than early on in the pandemic, when the reservation had one of the country's highest per-capita infection rates. The tribe on Wednesday reported one more death, bringing the tally to 1,263.

The tribe has approached reopening more cautiously than surrounding states, most recently because of coronavirus variants identified among infections. On Monday, it plans to reopen tribal parks to residents and increase capacity for businesses, gatherings and tribal casinos to 50%.

About half the reservation's population is fully vaccinated, roughly twice the U.S. rate. Still, residents on the Navajo Nation must wear masks and travel only for essential activity. Tribal roads are closed to visitors.

"We're not celebrating yet," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said during a virtual town hall Wednesday. "The pandemic is still here."

Biden likely will hear stories of resilience and success in the face of great adversity, of financial struggles in trying to keep businesses and the tribal government afloat, and the obstacles in ensuring schools can deliver education remotely in a region where internet service can be spotty at best.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has chipped away at the water, electricity and broadband needs, partly with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. But it estimates the price tag for providing basic utilities to residents at more than $5 billion. That won't be met even with money from the latest federal relief package, which set aside $20 billion for tribal governments.

Separately, President Joe Biden has proposed increasing the budget of the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service by $2.2 billion. The agency provides primary care to more than 2 million Native Americans. It has said the funding would help address longstanding inequities among its patients.

"It's a priority to improve relationships between the federal government and Native American people, but also there's a lot of need throughout the Navajo Nation," said Dr. Gregory Jarrin, a clinical consultant for the agency.

Jill Biden last went to the Navajo Nation in 2019 to celebrate the opening of a cancer treatment center in Tuba City, on the western side of the reservation. She urged Americans to contribute financially to address health disparities in a region where poverty and unemployment are high.

In 2013, she gave the commencement address at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, where she focused her speech on community, saying: "You all have a stake in each other's future."

That value is what drove tribes across the country to enact strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to protect elders and future generations.

The first lady kicked off a three-day visit to the U.S. Southwest with a tour of a vaccination clinic in New Mexico, where early efforts to get people registered for shots helped propel the state's standing as a national leader in vaccine distribution.

New Mexico Prepares To Fight Vaccine Hesitancy In Some Areas - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico health officials said Wednesday they are preparing to respond to pockets of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in some communities at the same time that overall interest in getting vaccinated increases.

Health Secretary Tracie Collins said the state is exploring recruiting "community champions" — trusted residents of regions with vaccine hesitancy who can address concerns about safety and effectiveness. Town halls also are a possibility to vet concerns and possible misinformation. And video testimonials about coronavirus vaccines already have been recorded.

"We've got a lot of work we're going to be doing these next few weeks to really get ahead of this vaccine hesitancy," Collins said.

She said precise statistics showing the vaccine hesitancy trends are not yet ready to be released.

Medical providers also have a crucial role in listening and addressing people's fears, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said in a virtual news conference.

"It really is more, I think, about giving people the opportunity to have a conversation about what their concerns are ... and work through those," Scrase said.

The state's two top health officials said cards showing proof of vaccination can be required by businesses and other venues to provide or refuse entry or service and that the cards might become a requirement by airlines or cruises. That could increase the incentive for vaccination.

But Collins and Scrase indicated that the state won't pursue any vaccination card mandates. Scrase said that kind of regulation might unintentionally shut out groups that have less access to the vaccine because of a low income, lack of computer access or transportation problems.

"We don't want to do anything like that," he said.

New Mexico is among the top states for vaccine distribution, with nearly 40% of residents 16 and older fully vaccinated as of Wednesday. 

First lady Jill Biden offered her encouragement during a visit Wednesday to a vaccine clinic in Albuquerque as part of a three-day tour of the U.S. Southwest that includes the Navajo Nation.

Health officials reported an uptick in positive daily COVID-19 tests to a rolling seven-day average of 219 on Tuesday. 

And nine counties out of 33 went back to tighter restrictions on indoor gatherings and business operations based on increases in indicators of confirmed COVID-19 infections.

Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell condemned the monitoring system as outdated and said it penalizes sparsely populated counties where positive test rates can spike based on a handful of cases.

"The inevitable came to pass and New Mexico businesses are again facing more restrictions," he said. "More than half of our state's citizens have had at least one vaccine and thousands more have recovered and are immune. ... It is time for a full reopening of our state."

Scrase said the statewide increase in cases isn't severe and that he expects most counties to shed most restrictions by late May. He also described indications that young adults are getting sick more often, though with less severe health consequences.

Nearly 15,000 vaccines are being administered in a state of about 2.1 million residents.

Jill Biden To Visit Navajo Nation, Once Floored By COVID-19 - By Felicia Fonseca Associated Press

Jill Biden is traveling to the country's largest Native American reservation, the Navajo Nation, which was hit hard by the coronavirus but is outpacing the U.S. in vaccination rates while maintaining strict pandemic restrictions.

The trip Thursday and Friday will be Biden's third to the reservation that spans 27,000 square miles in the Four Corners region, and her inaugural visit as first lady.

She's expected to meet Navajo officials in the tribal capital of Window Rock, named for an opening in a red sandstone arch and where the tribe established a veterans memorial. She'll also visit a boarding school and a nearby hospital that has been administering vaccines, both of which the tribe runs under contract with the federal government.

The trip comes as the Navajo Nation marked 10 consecutive days with no known COVID deaths and far fewer daily cases than early on in the pandemic, when the reservation had one of the country's highest per-capita infection rates. The tribe on Wednesday reported one more death, bringing the tally to 1,263.

The tribe has approached reopening more cautiously than surrounding states, most recently because of coronavirus variants identified among infections. On Monday, it plans to reopen tribal parks to residents and increase capacity for businesses, gatherings and tribal casinos to 50%. 

About half the reservation's population is fully vaccinated, roughly twice the U.S. rate. Still, residents on the Navajo Nation must wear masks and travel only for essential activity. Tribal roads are closed to visitors.

"We're not celebrating yet," Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said during a virtual town hall Wednesday. "The pandemic is still here."

Biden likely will hear stories of resilience and success in the face of great adversity, of financial struggles in trying to keep businesses and the tribal government afloat, and the obstacles in ensuring schools can deliver education remotely in a region where internet service can be spotty at best. 

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has chipped away at the water, electricity and broadband needs, partly with funding from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act. But it estimates the price tag for providing basic utilities to residents at more than $5 billion. That won't be met even with money from the latest federal relief package, which set aside $20 billion for tribal governments.

Separately, President Joe Biden has proposed increasing the budget of the chronically underfunded Indian Health Service by $2.2 billion. The agency provides primary care to more than 2 million Native Americans. It has said the funding would help address longstanding inequities among its patients.

"It's a priority to improve relationships between the federal government and Native American people, but also there's a lot of need throughout the Navajo Nation," said Dr. Gregory Jarrin, a clinical consultant for the agency.

Jill Biden last went to the Navajo Nation in 2019 to celebrate the opening of a cancer treatment center in Tuba City, on the western side of the reservation. She urged Americans to contribute financially to address health disparities in a region where poverty and unemployment are high. 

In 2013, she gave the commencement address at Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint, New Mexico, where she focused her speech on community, saying: "You all have a stake in each other's future."

That value is what drove tribes across the country to enact strict measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus to protect elders and future generations.

The first lady kicked off a three-day visit to the U.S. Southwest with a tour of a vaccination clinic in New Mexico, where early efforts to get people registered for shots helped propel the state's standing as a national leader in vaccine distribution.

Navajo Nation Reports Its First COVID-19 Death In 11 DaysAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported its first COVID-19 related death after 10 consecutive days of no such fatalities.

The tribe also reported eight new confirmed coronavirus cases on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The latest numbers bring the Navajo Nation's pandemic case total to 30,388 with the known death toll now at 1,263.

Tribal health officials say more than 16,500 people have recovered from COVID-19 thus far. The tribe had been easing into reopening but that slowed somewhat after coronavirus variants were confirmed on the reservation. Tribal officials urged residents to stay vigilant.

Jill Biden Visits Southwest US Amid Vaccine Push - By Susan Montoya Bryan and Morgan Lee, Associated Press

First lady Jill Biden has kicked off a three-day visit to the U.S. Southwest on Wednesday with a tour of a vaccination clinic in New Mexico, where early efforts to get people registered for shots helped to propel the state's standing as a national leader in vaccine distribution.

The tour includes stops in Albuquerque and later the Navajo Nation as the United States is set to meet President Joe Biden's goal of administering 200 million coronavirus doses in his first 100 days in office. The president also outlined his administration's latest plans to motivate more Americans to get shots as demand diminishes.

In New Mexico, nearly 40% of residents 16 and older have been fully vaccinated. While eligibility was expanded earlier this month as part of the Biden administration's push, the focus is now shifting to younger people ahead of the summer break.

State health officials also are recruiting trusted voices in local communities to respond to skepticism about vaccine efficacy and safety. The first lady had encouraging words for three people waiting for shots at a clinic in Albuquerque.

"I've had the shot, and it doesn't hurt," she said at the clinic that the governor described as a linchpin of efforts to serve minority communities.

Viviana Galvez, who works at the clinic, told Biden she was hesitant at first to receive a shot because she gets steroid injections in her spine and was concerned about what kind of effect that might have. After doing more research, she decided to go ahead and get vaccinated.

"What do we have to lose? We don't want to lose any more lives, we don't want to lose our family members, our friends. We just need to get it done," Galvez said. Her mother and daughter also received their shots.

Staff at the Albuquerque clinic have been working overtime and on weekends to immunize more people.

"It's been a long year. People are tired, but they're hopeful," said Will Kaufman, medical director at First Choice Community Healthcare.

Biden was accompanied by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose administration has been working to ensure that shots are distributed to rural and underserved areas through mobile clinics and partnerships with community health organizations.

At a drive-thru vaccination clinic in remote Mora County on Tuesday, health workers and members of a volunteer medical corps sped through a list of registered patients and offered shots of the Moderna vaccine to unregistered companions and a few passersby. Emergency technicians fanned out at day's end, traveling down dirt roads to administer shots to homebound elderly residents in a sprawling county with just 4,500 residents who are 80% Latino. Mora is among the poorest counties in the nation.

The clinic's lead pharmacist, Uri Bassan, said local vaccination efforts are shifting toward eligible high school students before they disperse on vacation and to summer jobs and college.

Melvin Maestas, 44, heard of the clinic by word of mouth and arrived with his 81-year-old father, who has dementia. They both received doses.

"To me it's a relief. I'm worried that it's starting to come up again," Maestas said of infection rates.

As part of her swing through the Southwest, the first lady also will meet Thursday with Navajo President Jonathan Nez and first lady Phefelia Nez in Window Rock, Arizona, before delivering a radio address. She is scheduled to attend a listening session Friday with Navajo students before taking a tour of a vaccination site that caters to Native Americans.

Amid Biden's visit to states that stretch to border with Mexico, New Mexico state health officials highlighted that Immigration and Customs Enforcement is required to stay away from vaccine sites and that the state only shares information with federal immigration officials under very extraordinary circumstances.

Biden and the governor wrapped up their quick visit to the Albuquerque clinic by handing out buttons and stickers.

2 Energy Firms Offer Concessions For Proposed Merger - Associated Press

Two large energy corporations in New Mexico that hope to merge have offered concessions to try to make the merger more palatable to those who questioned whether it was in the state's public interest.

Public Service Co. of New Mexico and energy giant Avangrid will more than double the amount of rate relief they plan to offer utility customers in addition to other benefits, the Albuquerque Journal reported Wednesday.

The companies filed an "initial stipulation" agreement on Wednesday that outlined the concessions for the merger, which is scheduled for public hearings in May.

The merger would now include a $50 million rate benefit for customers, up from the original $24.6 million. The partnership has also agreed to create 150 jobs, up from 100.

The New Mexico Public Regulation Commission is expected to determine whether the merger should continue.

Some critics had called the merger's initial proposal lacking in customer benefits.

The merger would place Public Service Co., the largest energy company in the state, under the umbrella of Avangrid and Iberdrola, a Spanish company that owns a large share of Avangrid.

Mariel Nanasi of New Energy Economy of Santa Fe, a critic of the merger, said the deal would still not be beneficial for rate payers.

Dennis V. Arriola, the chief executive of Avangrid, said in a statement that "we listened to local leaders, customers and other stakeholders to learn more about the unique circumstances in New Mexico."

Updated COVID Map Shows Some Counties Losing Ground KUNM, Santa Fe New Mexican

An updated statewide COVID-19 map released Wednesday by the New Mexico Department of Health shows most counties staying at the same levels in terms of re-opening.

But 8 counties regressed to the yellow level, including Catron, Chaves, Eddy, Harding, Lincoln, Rio Arriba, Sierra and Socorro, while Colfax moved to the most restrictive red level.

Another 5 counties advanced to less restrictive levels while 15 counties are still in yellow, including Bernalillo. Santa Fe County remains in turquoise, the least restrictive level.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the new map prompted calls from Republicans for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to revamp the state’s system of designating counties red, yellow, green or turquoise.

The system uses the per-capita daily incidence of new COVID-19 cases and average COVID-19 test positivity within county’s borders to determine the level of public health risk and requirement for each county.

The state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases was 219 as of April 15, according to the New Mexican. That’s above a target of 168.

Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said he is disappointed to see some counties regressing but also said he’s optimistic most of the state will be in green or turquoise by the end of May.

State health officials said 57% of New Mexicans have been partially vaccinated and nearly 40% are fully vaccinated.

Court Denies Former Priest's Appeal In New Mexico Abuse CaseAssociated Press

A federal appeals court on Wednesday upheld a former Roman Catholic priest's convictions and 30-year prison sentence in a New Mexico case centered on sexual abuse of an altar boy at a veterans cemetery and military base.

A 58-page decision by the three judges on a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel denied Arthur Perrault's appeal, saying they were convinced Perrault "received a fundamentally fair trial in compliance with his constitutional rights."

Perrault had fled the United States decades before he was returned from Morocco after being indicted in 2017.

Perrault was convicted in April 2019 of six counts of aggravated sexual abuse and one count of abusive sexual contact with a minor under 12. He maintained his innocence during his October 2019 sentencing.

Formerly a pastor at an Albuquerque parish and a chaplain at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, Perrault was accused of sexually abusing a boy at the base and at Santa Fe National Cemetery.

The two sites are within federal jurisdiction, which allowed U.S. authorities to file charges with no statute of limitations.

US Ends Oil, Gas Lease Sales From Public Land Through June - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

The U.S. Interior Department is cancelling oil and gas lease sales from public lands through June amid an ongoing review of how the program contributes to climate change, officials said Wednesday.

The action does not affect existing leases, and the agency has continued to issue new drilling permits during the open-ended review ordered by the White House, said Nada Culver, deputy director of Interior's Bureau of Land Management.

The petroleum industry and its Republican allies in Congress have said the oil and gas moratorium will harm the economies of Western states without putting a significant dent in climate change. There is no end date for the review, but an interim report due this summer could reveal the Biden administration's long-term plans for lease sales.

Sales were scheduled in June in at least two states — Nevada and Colorado. Details on the cancellations were obtained by The Associated Press in advance of the public announcement.

Officials previously postponed or suspended lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico, Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other states including Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Utah.

Biden on Jan. 27 ordered Interior officials to review if the program unfairly benefits companies at the expense of taxpayers and its impact on climate change. Federal courts have blocked prior leases in several western states following lawsuits from conservation groups that said climate impacts and other environmental problems from drilling were ignored.

The burning of oil, gas and coal from government-owned lands and waters is a top source of U.S. emissions, accounting for 24% of the nation's greenhouse gases. Oil and gas account for the biggest chunk of human-caused fossil fuel emissions from federal lands following a drilling surge under former President Donald Trump.

The federal government took in about $5 billion last year in royalties and other payments on oil and gas from federal lands, according to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue. Much of that money goes back to the states where drilling occurred.

The leasing ban is only temporary, although officials have declined to say how long it will last. And it's unclear how much legal authority the government would have if it tried to stop drilling on about 23 million acres (9 million hectares) onshore and offshore that were previously leased to energy companies.

Thirteen states sued in federal court in Louisiana last month to try to force the resumption of sales, arguing the sales are required to be held regularly under federal law. Wyoming officials filed a separate suit in their state.

Another legal challenge against the administration is pending from oil and gas industry groups, also in federal court in Wyoming. On Tuesday, a coalition of 21 conservation and Native American advocacy groups represented by the environmental law firm Earthjustice sought to intervene in that case in support of Biden.

Earthjustice attorney Michael Freeman said the administration was within its legal authority to suspend a program overdue for reform.