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MON: UNM Pit to require vaccine for entry, Suspect in fatal hit-and-run of child now a fugitive + More

 Anyone over 12 will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter UNM's Basketball arena, The Pit, Starting after the winter break.
Megan Kamerick
Anyone over 12 will be required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test to enter UNM's Basketball arena, The Pit, starting after the winter break.

New Mexico adds vaccine rule to mask mandate at the Pit—Associated Press

The University of New Mexico said Monday it will add coronavirus vaccination rules to a mask requirement for fans entering the Pit arena in Albuquerque starting after the Christmas weekend.

In a statement released Monday, officials cited "increased health risks posed by surging COVID-19 numbers and the emerging threat of the omicron variant." It said the directive would start with women's and men's basketball games Dec. 28.

"The university has a responsibility to our student athletes, coaches, staff and the thousands of passionate Lobo fans, to do what we can to protect the health and safety of those competing, coaching, working, watching, and cheering the game," said Eddie Nuñez, university vice president and athletics director.

Everyone 12 and older entering the 15,000-seat arena will need to show proof they're fully vaccinated or show a recent negative COVID-19 test.

New Mexico becomes the sixth school in the 11-member Mountain West Conference to set a vaccine rule for home arenas, including the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, where the Mountain West Tournament is held in March.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the league said last week a decision had not been made about a vaccine mandate for the tournament at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas.

Suspect in Albuquerque boy's hit-and-run death a fugitive—Associated Press

The driver suspected of hitting and killing a 7-year-old Albuquerque boy is now considered a fugitive.

Albuquerque police said Monday that they served a warrant at the home of 27-year-old Sergio Almanza and he appears to have gone on the run.

Investigators identified Almanza as the suspected driver of the off-road vehicle involved in the Dec. 12 incident.

Authorities say Pronoy Bhattacharya and his family had just left the River of Lights display at ABQ BioPark. They were in a marked crosswalk with the right of way when an all-terrain vehicle struck the boy and his father.

The child died from his injuries. The father suffered serious injuries but is expected to recover.

Police say they suspect the driver was drunk.

ATVs are illegal on Albuquerque streets. The boy's death has prompted the city to review the current law.

New Mexico governor seeks low-carbon fuel standard—Associated Press

New Mexico's Democratic governor on Monday renewed her call for state legislators in the major oil producing state to approve requirements for fuel producers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that "New Mexico must pass a clean fuel standard in the upcoming legislative session."

The governor has discretion over which nonbudgetary initiatives are heard during the 30-day legislative session that starts Jan. 18.

Earlier this year, a Democrat-sponsored bill to impose low-carbon fuel standards stalled in the state House of Representatives after winning Senate's endorsement on a party-line vote with Republicans in opposition. The proposal would not have applied to retailers, including gas stations.

Similar programs have been implemented in California and Oregon. Low-carbon fuel standards are aimed at reducing greenhouse emission in the transportation sector by going beyond vehicle fuel efficiency requirements and setting benchmarks for fuel producers or importers or both.

The regulations typically quantify the environmental impacts fuels or blends — such as oil, ethanol or hydrogen — from their extraction or manufacturing process through its end use. The rules require providers to make gradual improvements in their production processes to reduce their emissions of carbon dioxide or other pollutants into the air.

In California, oil refineries can be rewarded for incorporating renewable sources of electricity like solar panels or wind turbines to power the refining process — or by sequestering carbon underground instead of releasing it into the air.

Lujan Grisham applauded Monday's move by the administration of President Joe Biden to raise vehicle mileage standards to significantly reduce emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases, reversing a Trump-era rollback that loosened fuel efficiency standards.

Republican House minority leader James Townsend of Artesia warned in a statement that the governor's policies could increase fuel prices in rural areas in an effort to please environmental activists.

New Mexico is producing more petroleum than ever before, surpassing North Dakota in recent months as the nation's No. 2 producer after Texas — boosting greenhouse gas emissions that are created when customers burn the state's oil or natural gas.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is poised to tighten federal methane regulations for the oil and natural gas industry. The New Mexico Environment Department is crafting its own rules aimed at reducing direct greenhouse gas emissions from oilfield equipment and prevent the release of methane, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides.

EPA releases $1B to clean up toxic waste sites in 24 states - By Michael Rubinkam Associated Press

Nearly 50 toxic waste sites around the U.S. will be cleaned up, and ongoing work at dozens of others will get a funding boost, as federal environmental officials announced Friday a $1 billion infusion to the Superfund program.

The money comes from the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that President Joe Biden signed into law last month and will help officials tackle a backlog of highly polluted Superfund sites in 24 states that have languished for years because of a lack of funding, the Environmental Protection Agency said.

About 60% of the sites to be cleaned up are in low-income and minority communities that have suffered disproportionately from contamination left by shuttered manufacturing plants, landfills and other abandoned industrial operations.

"No community should have to live in the shadows of contaminated waste sites," EPA Administrator Michael Regan said Friday at a news conference at the Lower Darby Creek Superfund site in Philadelphia, where a former landfill leached chemicals into soil and groundwater in the largely minority Eastwick neighborhood.

"With this funding, communities living near many of these most serious uncontrolled or abandoned releases of contamination will finally get the protection they deserve," said Regan, who has made environmental justice a top priority.

The funding is the first installment of a $3.5 billion appropriation to the Superfund program from the bipartisan infrastructure law. The announcement comes a day after Regan disclosed plans to release $2.9 billion in infrastructure law funds for lead pipe removal nationwide and to impose stricter rules to limit exposure to lead, a significant health hazard.

Sites to be cleaned up under the Superfund program include one in Roswell, New Mexico, where dry cleaners that went out of business almost 60 years ago laced the aquifer with toxic solvents; dozens of residential backyards in Lockport, New York, where a former felt manufacturer contaminated the soil with lead; and a residential and commercial district in Pensacola, Florida, where the defunct American Creosote Works once used toxic preservatives to treat wood poles and fouled the neighborhood's soil and groundwater.

In Philadelphia, fed-up residents approached the EPA in 2015 to push for cleanup of the contaminated Clearview Landfill. Work began two years later. More than 25,000 tons of contaminated soil has already been removed from nearly 200 residential properties, parks have been cleaned up and stream banks have been stabilized.

The $30 million cash infusion from the infrastructure law will accelerate those efforts, with work to be completed in 2023 — a year ahead of schedule.

"Our property values have never been higher," said Eastwick resident Ted Pickett, who serves on a community group that has been advising the EPA. "We no longer fear that our health is negatively impacted by concerns about contamination from the landfill. Our social fabric is stronger."

New Jersey accounts for seven sites on the Superfund backlog list, while Florida has five and Michigan and North Carolina have four each. Pennsylvania has two — and 90 on the Superfund list as a whole.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said many of these toxic sites are in low-income and minority neighborhoods like Eastwick that have "borne a disproportionate share of the harmful effects of environmental damage." He said the harms have been compounded by a historical lack of funding for cleanup.

"We have to work tirelessly to clean up polluted places that are harming and holding back communities in which they are located," said Wolf, adding the new Superfund money "is going to help make the promise real for communities all across Pennsylvania."

Las Cruces chile drop back to spice up New Year's Eve -Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

Organizers say the annual Chile Drop will return to Plaza de Las Cruces this year for an in-person celebration to ring in 2022.

The celebratory event was held virtually last year as COVID-19 spread during the winter months. It was prerecorded and aired Dec. 31 for viewers.

This year, live music, food and entertainment will be offered starting at 9 p.m. New Year's Eve in downtown Las Cruces. Main Street will be blocked off around the plaza so the event will be pedestrian friendly.

"That's the plan. It's a good, robust street party," event coordinator Russ Smith told the Las Cruces Sun-News.

Coronavirus-safe protocols put in place by the state for outdoor events will be followed, Smith said. That means masks are not required in outdoor settings.

One change this year will be how the color of the chile is determined. In previous years, when the clock struck midnight on Jan. 1, the large chile encircled with lights would turn red or green or a combination of both, which is known as Christmas in New Mexico. This year, coordinators decided to let residents vote on their preferred color online by scanning a QR code.

Smith said voting has already begun and will continue through 11 p.m. New Year's Eve. The results will be put into the system for the controlled descent at midnight.

"We have heard people talk about their preferences. We wanted to engage with the audience before the event in a more mechanical way, in a more interactive way," Smith said.

Voters have the option of choosing red or green. Smith said they have had people voice opinions that the chile should turn other colors such as pink or orange, but officials with Downtown Las Cruces Partnership decided to stick with the colors from New Mexico's famous question — red or green?

Local television and radio personalities will serve as the grand marshal and emcee for the event. The Memphis Band from Mexico will perform live bluegrass and country music.

Salvation Army official: Theft of toys no victory for Grinch -Associated Press

Farmington-area residents of northern New Mexico donated gifts and money after somebody stole a Salvation Army van loaded with $6,000 worth of toys for children, according to authorities.

"The Grinch will not have this victory," Salvation Army Lt. Christopher Rockwell told The Associated Press on Saturday.

Business leaders and others began making donations after the marked van with gifts intended for more than 350 children was stolen Tuesday from outside a store, Rockwell said.

The donations included "lots of toys, lots of clothing" as well as hygiene items and cash, certainly adding up to more than enough to replace the stolen items intended for children who are signed up for a distribution event Monday, Rockwell said. "We have like a waiting list ... so we could see what we have left over."

The generosity showed the "compassion and the hearts that people have for each other here," Rockwell said. "It's a massive blessing beyond comprehension."

Farmington police said Saturday that an arrest warrant has been issued for a 37-year-old man who is considered a suspect in the theft.

The van and toys have not been recovered yet and no arrest has been made or a possible motive determined, according to police.

Rockwell said he suspected a pickpocket stole the van's keys from a Salvation Army worker who was in the store.

"I think it was just some evil, unscrupulous person who just saw an opportunity," Rockwell said. "Desperate, I understand that, but to do this is just beyond imagination."

The Salvation Army is a Christian organization founded in 1865 in London. It is active in more than 100 countries and is best known for its charity shops, homeless shelters and disaster relief.

Fentanyl: a game of 'Russian Roulette' for New Mexicans - By Matthew Reisen Albuquerque Journal

He had been sober for years, a beacon in the recovery community who inspired dozens of people to get clean.

When the pandemic hit, the Narcotics Anonymous meetings that served as a sanctuary for him and so many others were shut down or went virtual.

Then, as those in recovery sometimes do, he faltered and started using again.

The man had told colleagues in the harm reduction community he was going to straighten up and wanted to get back to work.

But the 44-year-old never got the chance. He was found in a West Side parking lot in August, dead from an unintentional overdose after someone sold him a bag of heroin laced with fentanyl.

It was another notch in a disturbing trend.

Last year, the New Mexico Department of Health recorded 304 fentanyl overdose deaths between January and November, a 135% increase over 2019. From 2018 to 2019 officials had tallied a 93% jump, from 67 to 129, in fentanyl overdose deaths as 74% of overdose deaths in the state involved opioids.

The steep rise saw fentanyl-related overdose deaths catch up to meth overdoses, the largest contributor, for the first time. Full 2020 and 2021 data is not yet available.

But Dr. Robert Kelly, substance abuse epidemiology section manager at the state Health Department, told the Albuquerque Journal that fentanyl overdoses have continued that pace into the summer of 2021.

"We're seeing deaths in people because they don't know there's fentanyl in there," he said.

Oftentimes, other drugs are found alongside fentanyl in overdose patients, mostly cocaine and benzodiazepines like Xanax.

As fentanyl overdose deaths spiked there was a slight drop of 2% in those involving heroin. Kelly said some people turn to fentanyl because it does the same thing as heroin but "more and faster." Others don't know what they're getting.

"There are two groups of folks. And some of the folks who know how to use fentanyl, they go out and that's their drug of choice. … It's the folks who don't know that they're getting fentanyl that's the problem," Kelly said.

In 2019, New Mexico had the 12th highest drug overdose death rate in the nation, with unintentional overdoses accounting for 85% of deaths.

Between 2015 and 2019, Bernalillo County had the highest number of unintentional drug overdose deaths and opioid-related overdose emergency room visits in the state. Rio Arriba County had by far the highest rate of overdose deaths, nearly double that of second place San Miguel County.

In that time, use of the overdose reversal drug Narcan went up more than 1,000% in the state — from 8,158 to 94,743 doses. Its recorded success, however, rose only 432% — from 779 to 4,144.. Those who hand out Narcan to opioid users and often revive people themselves say the reversal drug doesn't work as well, and sometimes not at all, for a fentanyl overdose.


'Here to stay'

Dr. Brandon Warrick, an associate professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the University of New Mexico Hospital, put it bluntly: "Fentanyl is here, and fentanyl is here to stay."

He said overdoses from the drug come into UNMH on a daily basis and they have seen the numbers "ramping up very fast" since 2019.

"I have never seen such a rapid increase or shift in an illicit drug source — or come anywhere near what we're seeing with fentanyl," said Warrick, whose work has centered around drug abuse for more than a decade.

He said a recent troubling trend at UNMH is fentanyl overdoses in children.

In the past year and a half, the hospital has treated 10 children for fentanyl overdoses. Before 2020, the hospital had treated only two children.

None of the children died, but one child suffered significant brain damage from the drug. Warrick said the children, some as young as 1 and 2 years old, often take pills that were left sitting out.

In other cases, kids have become hooked.

In Carlsbad, such an incident led to charges against a mother and a grandmother.

Alexis Murray and Kelli Smith, 35 and 55, were charged with child abuse in the Sept. 28 death of Murray's son, 12-year-old Brent Sullivan.

Police found the boy unconscious from a fentanyl overdose in his grandmother's backyard. Smith told officers she tried to give Narcan to Brent but it didn't work.

Murray told police she and Smith dealt fentanyl regularly and Brent had been stealing the pills from her for months. Murray said her son had overdosed three times prior and each time they had used Narcan to revive him.

The last time proved fatal.

Warrick said he has seen a noticeable decrease in those using heroin, with fentanyl "essentially replacing that."

He said those who survive an overdose are not as receptive to treatment or rehab as those who develop complications, like an infection or disease, from their drug use.

"The last thing that the person remembers is they were in their sweet spot, they were feeling good," Warrick said. "The whole period of them being unconscious — near death — is experienced by everybody but the person who overdosed."

In an effort to encourage recovery, he said they often turn the lights up bright and announce "welcome back from the dead" when they revive someone from an overdose.

"When you get bright lights and a whole bunch of strangers saying, 'welcome back from the dead,' I mean, that's just like a scary experience," Warrick said.

Despite that, many fentanyl users are resistant to change. He said more so than the patients, the families hurt the most.

"What's more difficult than seeing somebody overdose is seeing … how their continued use really affects their personal lives … how much their children and families just suffer," Warrick said.


'A dime a dozen'

Before his death from an overdose at 18, Jennifer Burke's son used to tell her that heroin would call to him. Like a siren's song.

"I think fentanyl is like that, times 10. It draws them back in. It's so potent and once it grabs ahold of these kids, it's so hard for them to get back on their feet," she said.

Burke, who runs the rehab center Serenity Mesa in Albuquerque, said in the past year fentanyl has "turned everything upside down." Clients, ranging from 14 to 21 years old, went from an even split of heroin and meth to 80% fentanyl users.

"When fentanyl hit the market here in New Mexico, it took over really quickly, and I think people that had an addiction to opiates, that became their drug of choice," she said.

Burke said the influx was so great they have had a waitlist, often up to 20 people, stretching back a year. The facility has had more referrals in the past 18 months than it has ever had since it opened in 2015.

"We haven't been able to keep up," Burke said. "It's hard because I don't want to turn anybody away, especially somebody who's young, who's struggling."

She said the whole point of their program is to "catch them when they're young" before they end up in prison or worse. Burke said it's much easier to help a young person turn their life around than a 40-year-old who's been using for decades.

Because of the drug's prevalence and profits, Burke believes the only solution is prevention.

"There's too many drug dealers out there making tons and tons of money," she said. "… If nobody's going to buy the product, then they're not going to make any money and there's no product to sell — we have to get people to stop using."

She said fentanyl users who are able to get into the 14-bed facility have a much harder time than those hooked on meth or heroin. The withdrawals are much more painful and they often see psychosis and mental health issues with the drug.

Burke said they sometimes take clients back two or three times after a relapse as the cravings and triggers can last for months. And the users are getting younger and younger.

"I mean, 14- and 15-year-olds being addicted to fentanyl is not uncommon," Burke said. "… It's really sad because it's altering their brain."

For those who are still out there, Burke said it's a game of "Russian roulette."

"These are drugs being made by people that really don't care if you live or die, they could care less, you're a dime a dozen to them," she said. "… You don't know what you're getting when you buy — the next dose that you get could be fatal and that's what scares me the most."


Hooked as a teen

They were all baby-blue and stamped the same, but Hezekiah Beltran began to notice that each pill was different.

"Not every pill had the same amount of whatever inside of it," he said.

One day, a day like any other, he said he smoked a fentanyl pill and suddenly got dizzy. The last thing he thought is he was overdosing.

Beltran said he woke up after the people around him, strangers who became friends over a shared vice, revived him with Narcan.

It was just another day for the 17-year-old.

"I never thought that I would be anything more than a drug addict … that's what I felt my life was going to be," he said.

Beltran, who has been recovering from a yearslong fentanyl addiction at Serenity Mesa, said his foray into the world of drug use came early.

"Being brought up in the lifestyle — crime, violence and stuff like that — I feel like I always knew too much at a young age," he said.

Beltran, of Raton, started smoking marijuana at 9 and by 15 had graduated to meth, using with the same people who once did drugs with his older relatives. After getting arrested for meth distribution and firearm possession, the teen skipped town.

He said he landed in a neighborhood in Rio Rancho where everyone was hooked on fentanyl. The next door neighbor sold it, $10 a pill before noon, $20 after midnight.

"I just cut everybody off and at that point, it was a whole new group of people that I associated myself with. They were all fentanyl addicts," Beltran said.

It wasn't long before he was smoking five or six pills a day. He said the drug made heroin look like aspirin, it was that much stronger. And the sickness that came after was hell to pay: He couldn't move, was in pain all over and couldn't stop throwing up.

Those he hung around with were in the same boat, good people who just "got caught up in the life." They ranged from their teens and up, committing petty crimes to support their habit.

Overdoses were common. One man bragged about having survived 27 of them.

"I'm very grateful that I got out of that mess. I could have easily died with all the things I was doing," he said. "I feel lucky — because a lot of people don't get out."

Beltran thought back to a woman, in her 20s, who had stayed with him. He said they smoked fentanyl together and she overdosed. The Narcan, at least two doses, didn't work.

"She didn't come back – they just kept on trying and trying," he said. "… There was no color in her eyes. You know how my eyes are brown?… There was nothing there. I'll never forget that look in her eyes."


'There is hope'

Beltran said a police call to the house he was living at in April saved his life.

He said he spent a month and a half withdrawing in quarantine at the Metropolitan Detention Center. From there, he went to a treatment center in Santa Teresa before landing at Serenity Mesa.

"Maybe getting help is the only way to get through, but there is hope. There is a better future," he said.

Eight months later, Beltran said he has started feeling again. Happiness, sadness, worry, hope. At first, sobriety was scary and overwhelming. There are still triggers — a certain smell, crumpled tin foil — but he moves past them. Ever forward.

Beltran, set to be released soon, said he plans to move to Tennessee to live with family, get his GED and pick up a trade. For the first time in a long time, he is hopeful.

"People are scared to get off of dope or get off fentanyl because they're scared of the sickness, because they've been minimizing feelings … for so long," Beltran said. "It is hard, but I would like other people to know that it doesn't last forever, the sickness doesn't last forever, and there is hope."

Pedestrian killed in Albuquerque; Suspect is now in custody -Associated Press

Bernalillo County Sheriff's officials continue to investigate a pedestrian death in Albuquerque.

They said the vehicle involved left the scene of the fatal collision Saturday, but was later located and a suspect was in custody.

Authorities said the driver is suspected of DWI.

The names of the victim and the driver haven't been released yet.

Navajo Nation reports 40 new COVID-19 cases, 3 more deaths -Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 40 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and three additional deaths.

The latest numbers released Saturday pushed the tribe's total to 40,765 cases since the pandemic began with 1,576 known deaths.

Health officials on Tuesday had reported 46 cases and three more deaths on Friday.

Based on cases from Nov. 26-Dec. 9, the Navajo Department of Health issued an advisory Monday for 58 communities due to uncontrolled spread of COVID-19.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez said the omicron variant has not been found in swab samples on the Navajo Nation yet, but health officials continue to monitor carefully.

"Our public health experts continue to put forth their best mitigation efforts to help reduce the spread of COVID-19, but they need help from our Navajo people," Nez said. "The best defense against the Delta variant and the Omicron variant is to get fully vaccinated and a booster shot."

The reservation covers 27,000 square miles and extends into parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.