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FRI: New Mexico Relaxes Mask Rules, Drought Prompts More Forest Restrictions, + More

Pool photo by Luis Sanchez, Santa Fe New Mexican
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at coronavirus briefing July 1, 2020


New Mexico Relaxes Mask Rules For The Fully VaccinatedAssociated Press

New Mexico has adopted guidance on facemasks from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that says fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks indoors or outside in most cases, under a revised public health order issued on Friday.

The state Department of Health announced that mask are no longer required of fully vaccinated people in many public settings, though businesses and workplaces may still make face coverings a requirement for employees and customers regardless of vaccination status.

"All individuals, including those who are fully vaccinated, should continue to wear well-fitted masks where required by localities, tribal entities, and individual businesses," the agency said.

New Mexico is among more than a dozen states to quickly embraced new federal guidelines on masks. Schools will continue to require staff, teachers and students to wear masks at all times except when eating or drinking, the Public Education Department announced separately.

"The mask requirement is unchanged for school settings for now due to the potential spread of COVID-19 among unvaccinated students," the agency said in a statement.

The state has been gradually relaxing aggressive restrictions on gatherings in public, workplaces and recreational facilities based on each county's coronavirus infection statistics.

A broad economic reopening has been linked to a 60% statewide vaccination rate among eligible residents ages 16 and over, a goal state health officials hope to reach before the end of June. As of Thursday, 51% of eligible residents have been fully vaccinated, not including youths under 16.

"Getting vaccinated is the ticket to a safe and healthy COVID-free future," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. "We are close and getting closer. But that all depends on New Mexicans continuing to protect themselves and their community by getting vaccinated."

Masks are still required regardless of vaccination status in health care settings and at correctional facilities, homeless shelters and on public transportation.

The state's revised public health order still says that "all New Mexicans should be staying a their homes for all but the most essential activities and services."

Health officials say fully vaccinated status comes two weeks after the final shot of a single- or double-dose vaccine.

New Mexico ACLU Sues Over Treatment Of Immigrant DetaineesAssociated Press

The American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center on Friday sued a private prison company over the treatment of nine immigrant detainees at the Torrance County Detention Center.

The lawsuit centers on the use of pepper spray by guards last year as the immigrants protested poor living conditions and what they said were inadequate COVID-19 precautions. They also complained that status updates on their immigration cases were being withheld.

The lawsuit alleges that the detention center operator, CoreCivic, violated the immigrants' rights to be free from excessive or arbitrary force.

"Our clients, who came to the United States seeking safety from persecution, were peacefully demonstrating against dismal living conditions and treatment," said Nadia Cabrera-Mazzeo, a staff attorney with the ACLU. "Rather than treating them with dignity and compassion, guards chose to spray them with chemical agents and subject them to further trauma."

She described the incident as a "gross abuse of power," adding that the immigration system is in need of change.

CoreCivic in a statement said it has followed federal guidelines regarding COVID-19 and that guards were forced to take action after the detainees became disruptive and refused to comply with verbal orders.

The Torrance County Commission also is named as a defendant for allegedly failing to care for the people being detained at the lockup. The county attorney did not immediately return a message seeking comment.

Attorneys for the immigrants say the incident began May 11, 2020, when the nine plaintiffs began a hunger strike over conditions at the detention center. Three days later, they alleged that guards equipped with shields and gas masks deployed multiple canisters of pepper spray in a confined area. The detainees began coughing. Some lost consciousness.

The lawsuit contends that CoreCivic staff failed to properly decontaminate the plaintiffs or provide them with medical care, resulting in harm for days. Several of them tested positive for COVID-19 within days, and two who have a history of mental illness attempted suicide in the aftermath of the incident.

CoreCivic said detention center staff tried to deescalate the situation but were unsuccessful, so that's when the spray was used. The detainees then became compliant. The company said medical staff reviewed all individuals involved in the protest and that no injuries occurred as a result of the incident.

Additional US Forests In New Mexico Impose Fire Restrictions Associated Press

More national forests in drought-stricken New Mexico plan to impose fire restrictions on activities such as campfires and smoking in an attempt to prevent human-caused wildfires.

The Carson National Forest headquartered in Taos and the Santa Fe National Forest headquartered in Santa Fe announced Friday they will implement so-called Stage One restrictions effective May 24.

The restrictions prohibit campfires at dispersed sites and allow fires only in developed campsites and picnic areas with Forest Service-installed fire rings or grills, while smoking is allowed only in vehicles, buildings or areas cleared of all flammable material.

The Lincoln and Gila national forests in southern New Mexico implemented similar restrictions in April.

Carson National Forest Supervisor James Duran said abandoned or unattended campfires are the leading cause of wildfires. Duran also said fuel moisture levels in the forest are now at levels typically not seen until mid-summer.

Criteria for implementing restrictions includes current and predicted weather, fuel moisture, fire activity levels and available firefighting resources.

New Mexico Education Department Mandates Diversity Course - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Employees at the New Mexico Public Education Department are completing a three-hour diversity course as part of a plan to address a court order to improve services for students of different cultural, linguistic, and income backgrounds.

The virtual training was mandated for all 234 agency employees including Education Secretary Ryan Stewart, a spokeswoman said. Repeat sessions on Thursday and Friday were open to hundreds of teachers and school leaders outside the agency who signed up voluntarily.

"In my 21 years of doing this work, it is the first time for me that state employees in the education department have been required to attend," said training leader Sharroky Hollie, a former school teacher.

Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the diversity training challenged stereotypes and helped participants identify biases.

"I loved this advice: 'Your first thought doesn't have to be your last thought,'" said Robinson, who attended the three-hour training.

New Mexico is trying to improve the way the education system serves Indigenous, low-income, and English language-learning students in part because of an ongoing court order to provide them with an adequate education.

"As a state agency, we have the responsibility of ensuring that all children in New Mexico receive an equitable education while we reaffirm their individual home culture and language," said Lashawna Tso, assistant secretary for Indian education.

Diversity training is one component of the department's efforts to tackle the expanding reach of the court's orders.

The department is also implementing a plan to measure the speed of at-home internet by collecting connectivity data as part of the school registration process, Robinson said.

"There is no higher priority than getting every student what they need to succeed," said education secretary Stewart in a statement Monday. "The Public Education Department has been working at full tilt since March 2020 to expand student access to digital devices and high-speed internet services, and we continue to push aggressively to expand that work."

The court ruled last month that fast internet was part of an adequate education for plaintiffs in the lawsuit barred from attending in-person classes.

A handful of schools have remained in remote learning due to COVID-19 concerns including health orders by tribal governments.

Separate from this week's diversity course, all school staff will eventually be required to take annual training as part of the Black Education Act passed by state legislators this Spring.

The Black Education Act Council established by the law "will develop or recommend training that addresses race, racism, racialized aggression and builds skills in creating an equitable culturally responsive learning environment," says Office of African American Affairs director Amy Whitfield.

The training could differ from the one offered by the Public Education Department, whose staff are not required by the law to take a course.

"My hope is that through the Black Education Act, multiple trainings are provided for school personnel that comes from the expertise within New Mexico with a specific understanding of the unique and complex history and connections of marginalized groups in New Mexico," Whitfield said.

Health Officials Say Half Of New Mexicans Now Fully Vaccinated Associated Press

New Mexico is now administering the Pfizer vaccine for COVID-19 to children ages 12 to 15, as state health officials pushed Thursday for more people to get vaccinated.

The move by the state Health Department follows authorizations this week by the federal Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The state is encouraging families to register children on its vaccine website.

The expanded availability applies only to the Pfizer vaccine, which until now was only available to people ages 16 and older. The Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are authorized for people 18 and older.

State officials say more than half of eligible residents are now considered fully vaccinated.

The goal is to hit 60% next month, but vaccination rates for some parts of the state — including southeastern New Mexico and rural areas in central New Mexico — are trailing because not everyone wants a shot.

The state has been trying incentive vaccination. On Thursday, health officials said employers are entitled to tax credits through the federal government for providing paid leave to employees who take time off related to COVID-19 vaccinations. They also have set up a website where organizations and local groups can request vaccinations clinics.

Washington State Nuclear Site To Delay Moving Waste Off-Site Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Energy and its regulators have proposed extending the deadline to ship waste contaminated with plutonium off the decommissioned Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state.

The proposal moves the deadline back 20 years — from 2030 to 2050 — to ship the waste to a national repository in New Mexico for permanent disposal, the Tri-City Herald reported  Wednesday.

"We realized that the existing milestone dates were unachievable," said John Price, a manager with the state Department of Ecology, which is a regulator for the nuclear site.

The Hanford nuclear reservation produced plutonium for nuclear weapons during the Cold War and World War II, leaving 56 million gallons of radioactive waste in underground tanks. The 580-square-mile site is located in Richland, Washington about 200 miles southeast of Seattle.

Price also said there were some newly proposed deadlines that the Department of Ecology "enthusiastically" supports, including a commitment by the Department of Energy's to start shipping some waste as early as 2028.

The federal agency and its regulators — the Department of Ecology and the Environmental Protection Agency — set waste cleanup plans and deadlines for the nuclear site.

The latest proposed deadlines cover suspected transuranic waste, or debris contaminated with plutonium, including about 11,000 containers stored at a Hanford complex.

Waste with artificially-made elements above uranium on the periodic table is also classified as transuranic.

A public meeting to discuss the latest proposed changes and answer questions was scheduled for Thursday.

Police Investigate Triple Homicide In Northeast Albuquerque - Associated Press

Albuquerque police are searching for a man who was seen running from a hospital parking lot after three people with gunshot wounds were found inside a vehicle. 

Officers responded to the hospital around 3 p.m. Wednesday. Two of the people were dead inside the vehicle and the other person died despite the efforts of paramedics, police said.

The names and ages of the three people weren't immediately released. No arrests had been made.

It wasn't immediately clear where the victims were shot before they were driven to the hospital in northeast Albuquerque. Police are investigating a second scene and are trying to determine if it's connected.

Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos said the man who ran away is considered a person of interest.

"He had blood on him, and it looked like he was injured," Gallegos said. We aren't sure if he was injured or not."

Trial Of Man Accused Of Murdering Wife, 4 Daughters Begins - Associated Press

The trial of a man accused of murdering his wife and four daughters in 2016 has begun in Roswell, New Mexico. 

Juan David Villegas-Hernandez faces five counts of first degree murder in the shooting deaths of his wife, Cynthia Villegas, and four daughters Yamilen, Cynthia, Abby and Ida. They were found with gunshot wounds to the head inside their home in July 2016. 

The prosecution at the trial Tuesday said that Villegaz-Hernandez killed his wife and children after learning that she wanted to divorce him. 

Villegas-Hernandez's attorney called the crime horrific and heartbreaking, but he argued his client had no motive and prosecutors don't have the evidence to implicate him.


Navajo Nation Reports 14 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Thursday reported 14 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and one additional death.

It was the first reported coronavirus-related death in four days. Tribal health officials say the latest figures pushed the total number of cases since the pandemic began more than a year ago to 30,677 on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The known death toll now is 1,286. 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.

Nez said health care facilities on the Navajo Nation have begun to vaccinate adolescents in the 12-to-15 age range and some large-scale drive-thru vaccination events will be held Saturday.

"Our goal is to have at least 5,000 adolescents vaccinated by this weekend," said Nez, who accompanied his 13-year-old son to Gallup Indian Medical Center on Thursday to receive his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.

Fire Officials Aim To Douse Blazes Fast, Avoid Megafires - By Matthew Brown, Associated Press

U.S. officials said Thursday they will try to stamp out wildfires as quickly as possible this year as severe drought tightens its grip across the West and sets the stage for another destructive summer of blazes.

By aggressively responding to smaller fires, officials said they hope to minimize the number of so-called megafires that have become more common as climate change makes the landscape warmer and dryer.

A similar approach was taken last year, driven by the pandemic and a desire to avoid the large congregations of personnel needed to fight major fires. Nevertheless, 2020 became one of worst fire years on record with more than 10 million acres of land scorched and almost 18,000 houses and other structures destroyed, according to federal data and the research group Headwaters Economics.

California and the Pacific Northwest were especially hard-hit, including an unprecedented million-acre (400,000-hectare) fire in northern California. Wind-driven conflagrations in Oregon and Washington state burned into urban areas and triggered massive evacuations.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told firefighting personnel Thursday to brace themselves for another challenging year amid  what scientists describe as one of the West's deepest droughts in more than 1,200 years.

Haaland and Vilsack wrote in a memo to fire leaders that 90% of the West is in drought.

"These conditions have not only increased the likelihood of wildfires but they have also strained water supplies and increased tensions in communities," they wrote.

Officials also offered details on the Biden administration's plan to "change the trajectory" of increasingly dangerous wildfires in the West, by vastly expanding the amount of land where tree thinning, controlled burns and other measures are used to reduce flammable material.

The Forest Service plans to at least double the amount of land receiving such treatments to 6 million acres (2.4 million hectares) annually — an area bigger than New Hampshire — and possibly up to 12 million acres (4.9 million hectares), spokesperson Babete Anderson said.

Large fires were active Thursday in Arizona, California and New Mexico. More than a half-million acres already have burned this year nationwide. The year-to-date figure is well below the 10-year average. But the worsening drought is expected to bring increased fire danger that will spread from the Southwest into California, Nevada, the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains by summer, officials said.

"Our focus is on smart firefighting, aggressive firefighting, catching these fires when they are small," said Patty Grantham, acting director of fire and aviation at the U.S. Forest Service.

A shortage of resources last year hobbled firefighting efforts for more than two months  at the height of the season. Twelve people involved in firefighting efforts were killed as were at least 45 civilians in Oregon and California, federal officials said.

Firefighters are able to put out about 98% of fires before they get out of control, according to federal officials. It's the remaining 2% that cause most damage in terms of homes destroyed, said Kimiko Barrett, a wildfire researcher at Bozeman, Montana-based Headwaters Economics.

Yet more homes continuously are being built in fire-prone areas. Throw in climate change, and it's a recipe for destruction. Of the more than 89,000 homes and structures that have burned in wildfires since 2005, almost two-thirds were destroyed in the past four years, according to data compiled by Barrett.

"As wildfires gain in intensity and speed — what is referenced as extreme wildfire behavior — they are becoming much more difficult for firefighters to suppress," she said.

Barrett said now is the time of year for homeowners to take basic steps that improve their property's chances of surviving fire, such as getting woody debris off the roof and away from the house, and trimming back trees. Also keep a bag packed and evacuation route lined up if a quick escape is needed, she said.

The federal government spends roughly $2 billion to $3 billion annually attacking wildfires using firefighters, bulldozers, aircraft and other heavy equipment. The administration is seeking a nearly 40 % increase, to $1.7 billion, in additional funds for managing fire dangers through thinning, controlled burns, and related projects.

Vilsack said forest treatment work can cost roughly $1,500 per acre, versus $50,000 per acre to put out a fire.

"We need to do a better job treating our forests, reducing hazardous fuels buildup that's occurred over decades," he said.

But fire ecologist and environmental advocate Tim Ingalsbee said the government still is sinking too much money into putting out fires by attacking them directly. More wildfires should be allowed, especially in low-risk areas and in wetter months, to burn off underbrush and other fuels before they become so dense that stopping a fire becomes impossible, he said.

"They may stomp on a fire and put it out quick, and then next time when that area burns it burns even more severely, because climate change keeps ratcheting it up," Ingalsbee said.

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