FRI: New Mexico Hospital Workers Protest Vaccine Mandates, + More

Aug 20, 2021

 New Mexico Hospital Workers Protest Vaccine Mandates - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

Around 150 people protested in front of the New Mexico state capitol Friday, demanding an end to vaccine mandates for healthcare workers.

Many protesters identified themselves as hospital workers — nurses, nursing assistants and clerical workers. Other attendees included correctional officers, retirees and children of healthcare workers.

A state mandate requires nurses and other workers in high-risk environments to get vaccinated, and some hospitals have their own mandates.

"I believe the vaccine is harmful," said practical nurse Katrina Philpot, picketing along the road outside the capitol complex with a sign that read "Healthcare workers deserve rights."

Philpot said the hospital she works at in Rio Rancho is requiring her to be vaccinated by Aug. 27 or be fired. She fears she won't qualify for medical and religious exemptions to the mandate.

State employees, including prison guards, are required to get vaccines or submit to weekly testing. At least one prison guard has sued the state over the mandate.

Supportive drivers honked as they passed, while those who disapproved yelled at the group.

California Felon Charged In Shooting Of New Mexico Officers - Associated Press

A California resident previously convicted of a felony has been charged with opening fire on Albuquerque police officers, severely wounding one officer and injuring three others after they responded to a robbery.

Officer Mario Verbeck remained in critical condition Friday after being shot in the neck just above his bulletproof vest. Officer James Eichel is recovering from a gunshot wound to the forearm, and Sgt. Sean Kenny was saved by his bulletproof vest when he was shot in the chest.

Officer Harry Gunderson was hit in the face by glass and fragments as he took cover behind a police vehicle during the gunfight that broke out Thursday morning on the city's northeast side.

A criminal complaint identifies the suspect as James Ramirez, 27, of Los Angeles. He's charged with three counts of aggravated battery against a police officer, armed robbery, possession of a firearm by a felon and resisting evading or obstructing an officer.

Ramirez, who was shot and injured, was recovering at an Albuquerque hospital. Court records show an attorney has not yet been appointed.

The shooting comes as Albuquerque deals with a record-setting year of deadly violence and mounting frustration among residents and law enforcement. The violence also has revived criticism of the state's no-money bail system, ushered in by a statewide vote in 2016.

Police Chief Harold Medina said during a briefing Thursday that the community needs to voice its frustrations to ensure policymakers and the criminal justice system start making changes "to keep bad people in jail."

According to the criminal complaint, a man told authorities he was robbed at gunpoint while walking down the street Thursday morning. Two men had taken his wallet, shoes, gold necklace and a PlayStation that was in his backpack. He later spotted the thieves and alerted police.

The men began running as Verbeck and Eichel approached. That's when Ramirez fired at the officers, according to the criminal complaint. Both officers were hit but returned fire as the men fled.

"I later observed the officers' on-body recording devices and observed the officers getting shot and bleeding profusely," a detective wrote in the complaint.

Kenny and Gunderson arrived to find Ramirez hiding behind a vehicle near a coffee shop along a busy street. Gunderson told Ramirez to drop the gun and Ramirez fired at him. Gunderson was struck in his vest, and Kenny was hit by glass as he took cover.

The officers exchanged gunfire with Ramirez until he was struck and fell to the ground.

According to the criminal complaint, the second suspect has not been identified or apprehended.

Mexican Gray Wolf Roaming Near Flagstaff Captured, Relocated - Arizona Republic, Associated Press

An endangered Mexican gray wolf that was roaming near Flagstaff has been captured and relocated to an area near the Arizona-New Mexico border.

The wolf had ventured into housing developments, raising concern from state wildlife officials that it might be intentionally or accidentally shot, or struck by a vehicle, said Jim deVos, the Mexican wolf coordinator for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

"We believe that the wolf was in jeopardy," he told the Arizona Republic. "Now he'll be back in an area with females, finding a female partner, forming a pack and contributing to the recovery. That's what our goal was."

The wolf was captured earlier this month in the Coconino National Forest and has rejoined other wolves that are part of a recovery program centered in a forested area spanning parts of southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico. North America's rarest subspecies of gray wolf, the Mexican gray wolf was listed as endangered in 1976 after being pushed to the brink of extinction.

The population has grown since the first wolves were released in 1998 as part of the reintroduction program. The latest annual census found about 186 Mexican wolves in the wild in New Mexico and Arizona, a 14% increase over the previous census.

The latest quarterly report released this week shows several of the wolves have died this year.

Environmental groups had been hoping the wolf captured in Flagstaff could stay, even if it was beyond the northern boundary of the designated recovery zone. The groups have been referring to the animal as "Anubis," a name chosen by students in a contest not associated with government agencies. 

The groups said the wolf fed on elk carcasses, stayed away from livestock and didn't exhibit any signs of danger.

"I'm disappointed to hear that Anubis was captured," said Emily Renn, executive director of the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project. "Most people chose to live surrounded by the national forest for a reason, because they love the seclusion and are willing to coexist with wild nature."

Arizona wildlife officials said the wolf had crossed Interstate 40 at least three times, and the agency received reports that it had been spotted by people six times. Under a 2017 recovery plan, the Arizona Game and Fish Department is required to work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to capture and release any wolf that ventures north of the highway. 

Federal officials are currently rewriting the regulations in response to lawsuits filed by conservation groups.

New Mexico Scales Down Unemployment Benefits, Battles Fraud – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

State labor officials warned Thursday that unemployment benefits are scheduled to come to a close for about 50,000 New Mexico residents in early September, as the federal government ends supplemental payments to people who lost jobs or self-employment income during the pandemic.

Employers are warily watching whether those individuals will return to work and stabilize the state's unemployment insurance trust fund that is sustained by payroll taxes. The fund has been whipsawed by the pandemic and related financial crisis, while employers were temporarily shielded from tax rate increases.

New Mexico had the nation’s highest June unemployment rate, at 7.9%. The state is bracing for the expiration Sept. 4 of four federal programs that boosted the maximum weekly unemployment benefit per worker of roughly $484 in New Mexico to $784, while temporarily extending benefits to the self-employed and gig-economy workers.

Workforce Solutions Secretary Ricky Serna told a panel of state legislators that roughly 67,000 resident are currently receiving unemployment benefits, down from a record high of 148,000 in June 2020.

Of those, only 14,000 receive standard state unemployment benefits, the longstanding program sustained by payroll taxes and a state-managed trust fund. The remainder are unlikely to continue receiving benefits.

Serna outlined efforts by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state Legislature to shield employers from tax increases associated with unprecedented payouts of $3.7 billion in unemployment benefits since the outset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Serna said special “hold harmless” legislation enacted in June 2020 was successful in shielding employers from major tax rate increases as unemployment claims surged during the pandemic, depleting a $460 million unemployment trust and saddling the state with $284 million in debt.

“Fewer businesses saw an increase, and overall that increase to those businesses was smaller, when you make a comparison to the prior year,” Serna said. “So the provisions that this legislature put in place to hold businesses harmless were really effective.”

The state unemployment trust was replenished in June to its pre-pandemic balance of $460 million, thanks to a new tranche of federal pandemic relief authorized in March by President Joe Biden after he won congressional approval.

New Mexico Business Coalition President Carla Sonntag said employers are wary that the federal government might extend supplemental employment benefits, possibly influencing individual decisions about whether to return to work. She says high unemployment rates inevitably draw down the unemployment trust and could lead to payroll tax increases when rates are recalculated in 2022.

“We have been flowing (money) out of the fund, and we don't have enough people employed where businesses are paying to replenish the fund,” she said. “So we're not finding the equilibrium we've had before.”

At the same time, state unemployment officials say they are grappling with a surge in attempts to hijack unemployment benefit payments and federal bonuses away from New Mexico residents.

Serna said thousands of New Mexico residents last weekend received fraudulent text messages asking for claim information.

He said the balance of paid unemployment claims flagged for fraud has decreased to roughly $68 million, down from an estimated $120 million earlier in the year, as suspicious claims are investigated and cleared or referred to prosecution.

Separately, the state has made overpayments of unemployment benefits estimated at $130 million under circumstances not associated with fraud.

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, offered incentive payments of between $400 and $1,000 over the summer for people who return to work before the expiration of the extra federal unemployment payment.

About 22 states, mostly led by Republican governors, already have stopped accepting the $300 weekly federal supplemental over concerns that it may discourage people from returning to work when jobs are available.

US Energy Secretary Meets With Navajo Nation In New Mexico – Associated Press

U.S Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm met with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other tribal leaders Thursday at a power plant in northwest New Mexico to discuss renewable energy initiatives, including a solar project and energy storage system.

Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, D-N.M., and U.S. Office of Indian Energy Director Wahleah Johns joined the meeting at the Four Corners Power Plant in Nenahnezad near Farmington about 15 miles (24 kilometers) south of the Colorado line.

Granholm said in a statement it “was great” to meet President Nez and the Navajo Nation’s cabinet “to discuss opportunities to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy.”

The region is preparing for the closure in the coming years of two major coal-fired power plants and the mines that feed them.

Nez said Thursday’s discussion focused on ongoing development of the Bisti Solar Project in Huerfano, which could produce as much as 100 megawatts of solar energy, and a 100-megawatt battery energy storage system.

“Renewable energy is the future of the Navajo Nation,” Nez said in a statement. “We are pleased to share that vision with Secretary Granholm, the Biden-Harris Administration and the state of New Mexico.”

Education Secretary: New Mexico Needed More Outdoor Classes – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico's top education official during the pandemic headed into his final days in Santa Fe saying outdoor classrooms could have allowed more in-person instruction when schools were closed last year and may be key to addressing parents' masking concerns.

Education Secretary Ryan Stewart leaves on Friday, two years into his term, citing the need to be near family as his father faces serious illness.

Last Thursday, Stewart spoke with the Associated Press about the Public Education Department's accomplishments under his tenure and what he would have done differently during the pandemic.

As a former director of education innovation, first at a Philadelphia school district and later a nonprofit based in the same city, Stewart was brought to New Mexico to bring sweeping institutional change.

Before the pandemic, he oversaw the elimination of teacher assessment systems long criticized by Democrats for being punitive in a state that struggles with teacher recruitment and retention. His department also digitized more aspects of the educational bureaucracy and pioneered a new funding system to target poverty at the individual school level.

Most reforms have been blunted, slowed or eclipsed by the urgency and scope of the pandemic, which left thousands of students isolated, their only education facilitated through paper packets. The true scope of technological deprivation during the pandemic, as well as unfinished or lost learning, has yet to be fully documented.

Stewart said he has been pushing for outdoor learning, telling education leaders he could fund shade structures, furniture, and staff training.

“I’ve been pushing on all of these calls. I’m like, ’Hey guys, masks are a big issue in your community. You don’t want to wear them? We’ll help you. And let us know what you need.

Let’s get an outdoor learning program going. Then your kids don’t have to wear masks. And they like being outside.’” Stewart said.

He said there weren't any takers among state superintendents.

School districts with 100 students or less were allowed to stay open, with regular COVID-19 testing.

Some private schools also offered classes in person. The United World College, a residential high school with around 200 students, kept the virus under control by isolating from the surrounding community. The Tutorial School in Santa Fe held outdoor classes.

Officials at Santa Fe Public Schools said last year they were ordering shade structures with their own funds as part of an existing outdoor learning plan. But outdoor classes never happened on a large scale.

Stewart urged superintendents to consider outdoor schooling again, as parents keep kids out of school due to concerns about rising infections and, conversely, protests over masking requirements.

While the pandemic shut down some attempts at innovation, it drove others by forcing teachers to catch up to the 20th century.

From Las Cruces to Santa Fe and Farmington, the 2020 fall semester started with some teachers not having at-home internet or their own computers. Some didn’t really use email, let alone videoconferencing.

“We’ve moved everybody up to a baseline" of understanding email, videoconferencing and learning management systems, Stewart said.

Many students didn’t have computers until December or later, missing direct engagement with teachers through the entire fall semester. Supply chains were strained across the globe, with every school ordering laptops at about the same time.

In Lovington, a small district in eastern New Mexico, Stewart will be remembered for his role in securing laptops for students after a vendor fell short on promises to deliver them September.

Still, he acknowledges there were areas where the state could have moved faster.

Stewart leaves New Mexico with unfinished business ranging from the lowest education outcomes in the country to an unresolved long-standing lawsuit over a lack of adequate educational opportunities for Indigenous and Hispanic children.

The Public Education Department continues to challenge a 2018 court judgment that found education in the state falls short of constitutional requirements for up to 80% of the children — Native Americans, English language learners and those in low-income households.

Stewart says he developed a blueprint to address the lawsuit, but it won't be released until after he leaves.

The Public Education Department consulted with dozens of education and other advocacy groups for the draft but didn't include the plaintiffs who could ultimately agree to close the case.

Since the case is still pending, Stewart said that complicates efforts to work directly with the plaintiffs' attorneys.

Stewart cited progress in Native American education, from a seismic shift in funding to schools in Indigenous communities to increased funding for Indigenous language education.

It's possible that Stewart's largest contribution to New Mexico's school system is one of the least known.

Working with the state tax department, education officials created a new way to target poverty-stricken schools by creating a detailed index of family income. Stewart's innovation was to tap into data that his department is not allowed to see — tax returns — and get it aggregated by school area.

With some $30 million set aside for around 100 schools serving the poorest communities, the pilot project will generate data that the Legislature could use to consider expanding the funding formula.

“I’m super proud of the Family Income Index. I think that it’s a really good (example) of state agencies coming together to try to work and solve a problem,” Stewart said. “I think we’re going to look back in five years and say (we're) really glad we did that and other states are copying us.”

Albuquerque Police Charge Suspect In Decades-Old Cold Case – Associated Press

Albuquerque police have charged a suspect in the death of a University of New Mexico student who was stabbed near campus more than 30 years ago, the Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday.

The parents of Althea Oakeley established a scholarship in her name after she was killed while walking home from a fraternity party on June 22, 1988. She was stabbed four times and collapsed on a neighbor's doorstep, later dying at the hospital, police said.

The suspect remained a mystery for decades until police recently interviewed a man in another matter who confessed to killing a young woman in the 1980s near the university in Albuquerque, the Journal reported.

Paul Apodaca, 53, was charged with murder Thursday after he confessed to the killing at the Metropolitan Detention Center where he had been held for about a month on a probation violation, according to the newspaper.

Police were scheduled to provide more details on the case Thursday on what would have been Oakeley’s 55th birthday. But authorities postponed a news conference after three Albuquerque officers were shot and another was injured while responding to a robbery.

The Journal cited a criminal complaint filed in Metropolitan Court that said Apodaca told detectives he was working at the Technical Vocational Institute — now Central New Mexico Community College — as a security guard when he saw Oakeley walking home on the night of June 22, 1988, and ended up stabbing her in the shoulder blade and left side.

According to the complaint, he said he left his watch — one with a sun and a moon on it that his aunt had given him — at the scene, and a watch that matched that description was found near the blood trail.

Court records indicate Apodaca pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in March and was sentenced to supervised probation for three years. He was arrested on a probation violation on July 20.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender was representing Apodaca on his probation violation case.

“As the case proceeds tomorrow, we will check to determine if there are any conflicts of interest and either represent Mr. Apodaca directly or appoint a contractor to represent him,” LOPD spokeswoman Maggie Shepard told the Journal on Thursday.

Albuquerque police Chief Harold Media was among those who delivered the news about the latest in the investigation to Oakeley's parents in Taos. The meeting was emotional and bittersweet, he said.

Oakeley once was in the running for Taos Fiesta queen, and Medina's mother was fashioning the girl's elaborate dress. Medina remembered the girl with the bubbly personality who always said “Hi” to him.

The police chief also was the first recipient of the scholarship named for Oakeley after he graduated from Taos High School in 1990.

“It's tough because it's reopening old wounds,” Medina said. “But at the same time, there's also that fear like, ‘God, we got to get a conviction on this.’"

Medina told the Journal that Oakeley didn't know her attacker, but he lived and worked in the area. 

3 Albuquerque Officers Shot Responding To Robbery – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Three Albuquerque police officers were shot and another was injured while responding to a robbery Thursday, leaving law enforcement officials and elected leaders frustrated as New Mexico's largest city continues to grapple with a record-setting year of deadly violence.

Authorities said one of the officers was hit at the base of the neck, just above his bulletproof vest, and was listed in critical condition. One officer was shot in the forearm, and another was saved by his vest when he was struck in the chest by gunfire. The fourth officer was hit in the eye with shrapnel.

While the investigation is ongoing, Police Chief Harold Medina said multiple people were detained and the person believed to have fired at officers was in custody. That suspect was shot but is in stable condition, he said.

Medina called on the criminal justice system to come together to find ways to intervene and curb the violence, citing the “revolving door” that many residents have blamed for persistent crime problems and the latest rash of shootings. He also acknowledged that not all people can be saved.

“People need to want to get help, but some people need to stay in jail," he said. “And that is something we can't be afraid of saying. It needs to be said. Our courts need to hear it. Our prosecutors need to hear it, and our community needs to voice their frustration and ensure that we start making the changes to keep bad people in jail.”

He said frustration among law enforcement and the community has been mounting, but Thursday marked a pinnacle.

The officers were responding to reports of a robbery Thursday morning when they were fired upon. Authorities initially closed roads and nearby schools were put on lockdown after the shooting as officers swarmed an area near a coffee shop in a commercial district on the city's northeast side.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller called it a horrible scene and asked for residents to pull together for the officers and their families.

The city has been struggling with a record number of homicides this year, and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham just this week announced she would reassign more state police officers to New Mexico’s largest city in an effort to help ease the burden.

Republican lawmakers have asked for the Democratic governor to call a special legislative session to address what they have described as a public emergency, saying the state needs tougher criminal statutes and that repeat offenders need to remain behind bars.

Albuquerque officials acknowledged recent tragedies, including a school shooting last week that left a 13-year-old student dead. The police chief also noted it was nearly 16 years ago to the day that the city lost two veteran police officers in a deadly shooting rampage committed by a man with a mental illness.

“It's a very emotional time,” Medina said.

Lujan Grisham's office said the governor was horrified by Thursday's events.

Spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said the administration is keenly aware of the public safety issues facing the Albuquerque area and that the additional state police officers began working with local law enforcement Tuesday.

“The governor has committed to substantial public safety investments, including an effort to fund and support 1,000 new police officers statewide over the next decade, in the coming legislative session,” Sackett said, adding Lujan Grisham looks forward to Republican support of initiatives aimed at helping local jurisdictions combat violent crime and keeping repeat violent offenders locked up.

Dr. Steven McLaughlin, an official at University of New Mexico Hospital, was among those who briefed reporters Thursday afternoon. In his two decades working at the hospital, he said he has seen violence in the city escalate. He said the emergency room sees gunshot victims every day.

“Gun violence is a public health emergency that we're facing,” he said, adding that investments need to be made in research to better understand the causes.

Burning Of Zozobra To Be Hybrid Event Amid Pandemic – Associated Press

The ritual burning of a giant, ghostly marionette in Santa Fe will be a hybrid event this year.

Organizers of the Zozobra burning are planning to limit in-person attendance to 10,000 while also broadcasting the event on television and online, they announced Thursday.

The nighttime spectacle that's been transformed by modern pyrotechnics is in its 97th year. A team of a dozen puppeteers heaves on cords to flex the groaning marionette's arms, head and jaw.

Will Shuster, a painter from Philadelphia who migrated to the Southwest, created Zozobra, a name derived from a Spanish word for “anguish.” Donations from energy companies ensured the event could move forward on Sept. 3. It typically happens around Santa Fe's weeklong community fiestas that include historic and religious processions.

Anyone attending in person must prove they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus or tested negative within 72 hours of the event. Face masks will be required for anyone who is not vaccinated.

The Kiwanis Club of Santa Fe uses the event to raise money for youth charities. Organizers said they'll tweak the event as needed to comply with federal and state public health orders.

COVID-19 Infections Still Up in NM, Navajo Nation – Associated Press, KUNM News

The New Mexico Department of Health yesterday reported nearly 100 more COVID-19 cases than the day prior, with 968.

Bernalillo County saw the most new cases in the state, with just under 200.  Lea and Chavez counties also saw triple digit cases.

Three more people were hospitalized for the virus, bringing that total to 356 individuals receiving care in New Mexico.

Navajo Nation officials are asking residents to do their part in helping to curb the spread of the coronavirus as cases rise.

The tribe reported 60 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and two more deaths. Those figures bring the total number of cases to 32,068 and deaths to 1,392.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez urged residents to wear masks, get vaccinated and limit in-person gatherings with friends and family until the cases decline consistently.

“We are in this together and we must work together to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and the Delta variant,” he said in a statement.

Health care facilities across the Navajo Nation, which stretches into New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, are offering vaccines during drive-thru events or by appointment.