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FRI: State Launches New Virus Risk Framework, Albuquerque Clears Rape Evidence Kit Backlog, + More

New Mexico Department of Health
County status map for Friday, April 30 shows eased restrictions in most of the state

New Mexico Shifts Metrics, Some Virus Restrictions Relaxed – Associated Press

Friday marked the start of New Mexico's updated color-coded framework for determining COVID-19 risks in each of the state's 33 counties, with state officials saying the changes are aimed at providing a more accurate picture of risk given increasing vaccination rates.

By shifting the metrics, more counties are now at a level at which there are fewer restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities. In all, 24 counties are at the least-restrictive turquoise level, followed by six at green and three at yellow.

"As our models show, test positivity is likely to become more elastic over time, and as fewer New Mexicans will require COVID-19 testing amid increasing vaccinations, we want to provide counties the assurance that they can continue to progress in accordance with the actual risk they face," Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said in a statement.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and top health officials said earlier this week that the state is on track to have at least 60% of residents fully vaccinated by the end of June. That will allow capacity limits at restaurants and other businesses to be lifted and the state to fully reopen.

The health metrics used to determine a county's risk level now include a new less restrictive per-capita rate of new COVID-19 cases of no greater than 10 per 100,000 residents and a higher average positivity rate of less than or equal to 7.5% over a 14-day reporting period.

The latest state data shows more than 42% of residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated.

New Mexico on Friday reported 309 new COVID-19 cases, with Bernalillo and San Juan counties leading the daily tally. There are 145 people hospitalized. Despite the increase, Scrase suggested during a briefing earlier this week that the state had reached a plateau and that vaccinations were helping to keep the number from going higher as more people go out and interact.

Legislature Bristles At Governor's Vetoes Of Pandemic AidAssociated Press

State legislators bristled on Friday at vetoes by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that block legislative authority over new federal pandemic aid, and said they may seek a court ruling to defend Legislature's authority over that spending.

Pandemic relief legislation signed this year by President Joe Biden assigns $1.6 billion in aid directly to New Mexico state government. Legislators in March assigned $1.1 billion to backfill the state's unemployment insurance trust, underwrite roadway projects, provide several years of tuition-free college to in-state students and shore up finances at state museums.

Lujan Grisham vetoed those provisions and several leading legislators say the governor went to far in asserting her authority over the money. Lawmakers also say several line-item vetoes to a budget bill went beyond simple spending deletions to alter or expand state spending.

Democratic state Sen. George Muñoz of Gallup urged colleagues to seek an opinion from the state Supreme Court, during a meeting Friday of a year-round legislative committee on budgeting and accountability.

"I just think that the legislature has to determine under their purview if they're going to be the funding body or are we going to let the governor dictate," he said. "This is not a personal battle."

The committee took no immediate action. Legislative staff have cited several questionable vetoes. One would remove all restrictions on an appropriation to the Corrections Department that was supposed to increase pay rates for guards at private prisons.

Lujan Grisham has voice support in general for shoring up the state's unemployment trust fund to avoid future payroll increases on businesses. She says her administration is waiting on guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department on how funds from the American Rescue Plan Act can be spent.

Newly Mapped New Mexico Wildfire Smaller Than EstimatedAssociated Press

Officials now put the size of a wildfire in southern-central New Mexico mountains at less than half of a previous estimate and reporting progress in containing the blaze.

Mapping of the fire near the Ski Apache resort after an aerial reconnaissance flight using infrared sensing put it at 5,557 acres (22.5 square kilometers) , down from the previous estimate of 12,000 acres (49 square kilometers) as of Thursday, officials said in a statement Friday.

Aided by damp conditions expected to lessen by Saturday, crews had the fire contained around 13% of its perimeter, the statement said.

The fire started Monday near the Three Rivers Campground and its cause remained under investigation.

Evacuation notices were lifted Tuesday for most areas in the vicinity of the fire.

New Mexico City Ends Backlog Of Untested Rape Evidence Kits - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Officials in New Mexico's largest city said Friday they have cleared a backlog of thousands of untested rape evidence kits as part of an endeavor that has spanned more than three years.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller was flanked by law enforcement officials and advocates who work with survivors of sexual assault as he marked the accomplishment Friday. He and other officials said every kit submitted for testing has been returned to the police department's crime lab and officers are investigating cases as a result.

Keller pointed to a photograph that showed boxes of evidence kits lining shelves at the police department's forensic science center.

Another image showed bare shelves now that the backlog has been cleared.

"This for us is obviously a symbolic picture, but every one of those boxes is a victim and every one of those boxes tells a story that ultimately should lead to justice," Keller said, after recalling when he helped to ship off one of the last boxes to be processed last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

He said the city has developed the right processes and has the right systems and advocates in place to ensure a backlog never happens again. In fact, police protocols require evidence from rape and sexual assault cases to be processed within 90 days. An online training program also has been developed for law enforcement officers who interview and work with victims in such cases.

Millions of dollars have been poured into addressing New Mexico's backlog overall, which totaled more than 5,400 untested evidence kits from rapes and other sexual assaults when the work began years ago. New Mexico led the nation in the number of untested kits per capita, far outpacing other states.

The crime lab in Albuquerque carried the bulk of the backlog, with nearly 75% of the untested kits. Some of the cases in Albuquerque police's backlog had dated back to the 1980s. Many also included victims who were minors, the mayor said.

During his tenure as state auditor, Keller ordered a special inquiry aimed at identifying the root causes of the testing backlog. The results, released in 2016, showed that one-fifth of the kits reviewed as part of the statewide audit went untested because of a perceived lack of credibility on the part of the victim. Another 21% went untested due to either the loss of contact with a victim or a lack of cooperation.

Of the reviewed cases that originated in Albuquerque and Bernalillo County, officials said Friday that 3,152 DNA profiles were generated and 1,318 of those were eligible to be entered into crime databases. As a result, there have been 518 hits and the information has been forwarded to detectives with the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office.

Last spring, a few dozen private attorneys volunteered to act as special prosecutors and help the district attorney's office try defendants identified through the testing. The district attorney's office also is using grant money to pay for prosecutors in the office to work on the cases.

Officials have said they expect a couple hundred cases to be generated over the coming years due to the testing.

The Albuquerque Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Collaborative also created a program for providing notification to survivors on the status of their backlogged evidence kits.

Advocates reiterated Friday that the effort in Albuquerque and elsewhere to address the backlog sends a message to survivors that their cases matter.

Officials and advocates also acknowledged that testing was only the first step.

"We're going to keep talking about this," said Sarita Nair, the city's chief administrative officer. "It wasn't over when we sent the last kit. It wasn't over when we got the last kit back. It will only be over really when we've worked to bring justice to everyone who caused one of this kits to happen in the first place."

New Mexico Schools Begin To Spend $1.5 Billion Pandemic Aid - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico education officials have started to spend about $1.5 billion in pandemic relief aid set aside for them by the federal government.

Around 4% or $60 million of the anticipated windfall to school districts has actually been spent, as officials begin to file for reimbursements for the added costs of the pandemic, according to a legislative report released Thursday.

School districts bought thousands of laptops and tablets for students across the state, with more purchases expected to replace devices damaged by continuous use at home over months of remote learning. About 76% of the spending documented so far went to computers, WiFi hot spots, and safety and cleaning supplies, the Legislative Finance Committee report estimates.

Another 18% went to staff salaries and benefits. Schools also offered hazard pay to frontline workers such as bus drivers who delivered meals and homework assignments directly to students' homes.

A total of $1.5 billion in federal funding has been set aside for schools in New Mexico, with around 9.5% going to the Public Education Department and the rest going directly to school districts.

The first of three rounds of federal funding, which is comparatively small, must be spent by fall of 2022, while the most recent one totaling around $900 million doesn't have to be allocated until 2024.

"Federal funding, you know, that's a huge one and let me tell you we are planning and we have spent a lot of dollars," said acting Las Cruces Public Schools superintendent Ralph Ramos. "Number one priority was the safety equipment."

Las Cruces Public Schools recently returned to in-person learning, reversing a decision to stay remote all year. The school board recently voted to not access state aid to extend the school year. But federal funding could fill in the gaps for summer programming, as West Las Vegas school districts say they plan to do.

Around 20% of the largest round of funding is meant to be used for recovering from learning loss, which some districts are already planning to use for summer school programs and extra tutoring.

"Now we get into socially emotional needs for students," Ramos said. "That's a big one where we're going to be spending a lot of dollars to give them the support."

Detailed spending plans were not immediately available for individual districts such as Las Cruces, which will receive more than $100 million, according to the report.

Albuquerque Public Schools, which covers around 1 in 5 public school students, will get around $375 million.

That means up to a third of the Albuquerque budget will come from pandemic relief funding in the coming years, according to the Legislative Finance Committee, which met with district officials Wednesday.

Albuquerque Public Schools also did not immediately share pandemic relief spending records. Both schools have spent around 60% of the first tranche of funding, according to the Legislative Finance Committee Report.

New Mexico To Encourage Unemployed To Return To WorkAssociated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham told business leaders in Albuquerque that the state will soon adopt new policies encouraging residents receiving jobless benefits to go back to work.

The Democratic governor said the policies would be unveiled in the next week or so and that extended benefits should not be a "disincentive" to work, the Albuquerque Journal reported  Wednesday.

"We need to both incentivize employees to go back to work and we're going to need some accountability aspects," Lujan Grisham said during a virtual Economic Forum meeting. She did not provide further details on the policies.

Lujan Grisham also said her administration would use much of the $1.6 billion it will get over the next two years in federal relief aid to bolster the state's largely depleted unemployment fund. She said she would also push for federal approval to use much of the available money to ensure businesses do not face an increase in the tax rates they pay into it.

"The first priority with that money is clearly unemployment," Lujan Grisham said.

New Mexico has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S. for months — only New York and Hawaii had a higher number of unemployed residents. The state reported an 8.3% unemployment rate in March and waived its job search requirements for people receiving jobless benefits.

Some business owners have said they are struggling to compete against expanded unemployment benefits, saying referral bonuses, sign-on bonuses and other incentives have yet to attract a large applicant pool. Advocacy groups have argued that workers should not be blamed for not wanting to put their families at risk of COVID-19 for low-paying jobs that offer minimal benefits.

New Mexico Chamber of Commerce CEO Rob Black said changes to the state's public health order that take effect Friday could encourage some employees to go back to work.

Study Says Future Of New Mexico May Include Fewer People - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Flanked by booming economies and community growth, New Mexico is likely to watch its population count plateau in the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and then slowly decline with a pronounced drop in school- and working-aged residents and a drain on rural areas, authors of a report on demographic trends announced Thursday.

The report from the Legislature's budget and accountability office adds to indications in the 2020 Census of a population slowdown across large swaths of the high-desert state. It suggests that schools and universities in particular may want to plan accordingly to conserve resources and adapt.

At the same time, an increase in the number of elderly residents will place a greater financial strain on programs such as Medicaid and Medicare.

"In about a decade, New Mexico is projected to start seeing overall declines in population. ... Declines in younger ages and rural areas will continue and likely be exacerbated by Covid-19," states the report from staff at the Legislative Finance Committee. "Given the status quo, New Mexico is heading toward having more, older New Mexicans using relatively expensive public services and fewer, younger New Mexicans in school and working."

Authors told a panel of state legislators on Thursday that the projections, based on the 2010 census and interim surveys, are likely to be revised based on the results of the 2020 census.

The first available numbers this week from the 2020 census show New Mexico's population grew by 2.8% over the last decade, making it one of the slowest-growing states in the West. In the West, only Wyoming had a slower growth rate.

Neighboring Texas and Colorado are set to gain congressional seats as a result of population increases.

State lawmakers economic development officials have been trying for years to attract new employers and shore-up the working-age population with subsidies and tax incentives for businesses, while grappling with a relatively weak economy and poor national rankings in education, health and safety.

"It sounds like this is going to be a new issue for the legislature to tackle," said Republican state Rep. T. Ryan Lane of Farmington. "I worry about my kids and my grandkids when you have a decline in population. That has a trickle-down effect to the rest of the economy and the rest of our way of life."

In a counterpoint to those worries, state Rep. Susan Herrera of Embudo says she's witnessed an influx of people and competitive bidding on real estate in northern New Mexico.

Among other findings, the number of white, non-Latino residents across New Mexico is falling and may soon be surpassed by Latinos.

The report notes that a declining statewide birthrate — partly attributed to reduced births among teens — is likely to decline further amid the economic stress of the pandemic and its aftermath.

One notable exception is the state's Native American population, which has grown by about 20,000 people — a 9.7% jump — between 2010 and 2019.

Hopes still abound that the pandemic and a shift to remote work will bring new interest in New Mexico.

"Once we start coming out of the pandemic, you know I think New Mexico's going to be the place people really want to be," said Dominic Gabello, a senior adviser to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, in a media briefing earlier this year. He left the administration this month. "They want to get out of the big cities. They want to get away from the coast. We have great quality of living. ... We're where people are looking to be right now."

New Mexico Tribe, US Agency Reach Agreement Over Hospital - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The U.S. government has agreed to provide emergency and in-patient care at a hospital on tribal lands in New Mexico at least through next February after patients for weeks were forced to travel to other hospitals, including those about an hour away, during the height of the pandemic.

The Indian Health Service reached an agreement with Acoma Pueblo to keep the hospital open while officials determine what resources will best meet the surrounding communities' health care needs going forward. The pueblo announced the court-approved agreement Thursday.

A federal judge signed off earlier this week but noted the case could be reopened if the deal is violated.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo called the agreement a significant victory, saying it was unfortunate that the pueblo had to sue to restore services. At the time the case was filed in January, Vallo said previous pleas had fallen on deaf ears and that losing services couldn't have come at a worse time as the tribe was among those hit hard by the coronavirus.

While the agreement with the Indian Health Service has its limits, Vallo said in a statement that he's optimistic.

"This is a chance to redesign the hospital and determine what's best to meet the medical and health care needs of both tribal and surrounding nontribal communities going into the future," he said. "We need a permanent solution. Unfortunately, the agreement is only in place until February of 2022, and there's no assurance of continued or increased funding by the federal government. Congress and the IHS need to step up."

The agency said in a statement Thursday that it continues to communicate regularly with tribal leaders. It did not answer questions about the hospital's future, other than saying it was committed to providing comprehensive, quality care to patients.

Criticism of the Indian Health Service and chronic funding inadequacies have spanned decades and numerous presidential administrations. Lawyers for Acoma said last fall's closure was just the latest example as the agency has been moving to downsize smaller hospitals in favor of having centralized health care facilities.

Tribal officials had argued that the agency is required under federal law to provide a year's notice to Congress whenever it plans to close one of its hospitals. They say that didn't happen before critical services were halted in November at the Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Service Unit hospital. The hospital was converted to an urgent care unit offering limited services only during regular business hours.

The federal court in late January ordered the agency to maintain emergency services at the hospital while the parties negotiated.

In February, the Indian Health Service submitted its closure plan for the hospital and talks continued.

As part of the agreement, the agency committed to using temporary resources, on a one-time basis, to fund emergency and in-patient departments at the hospital through February 2022. It also agreed to make its best efforts to maintain staff levels and secure additional staff if necessary to continue operations for the period.

Questions about the hospital's future came up last year after the Indian Health Service received a proposal from Laguna Pueblo, a neighboring community that had plans to open a health clinic that would offer similar services. The agency indicated at the time that it would redesign what would be offered at Acoma and began notifying employees — prompting many to retire, resign or transfer.

The agency announced in March that it had transferred management and operation of some programs to the new Laguna clinic.

Navajo Nation Reports 6 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported six new confirmed COVID-19 cases and three additional deaths.

Tribal health officials said the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago now is 30,491 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah with 1,276 known deaths. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said more than half of the reservation's adult population has been vaccinated. But people still need to stay home as much as possible, wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

On Monday, the Navajo Department of Health loosened some virus-driven restrictions and transition to "yellow status." 

Restaurants now are allowed to have in-door dining at 25% capacity and outdoor dining at 50% capacity.

Parks are permitted to open at 25% capacity but only for residents and employees. 

Navajo casinos are open at 50% capacity, but only for residents and staff.

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