FRI: School Vaccine Clinics Now On Hold, + More

Jan 22, 2021


Officials Say School Vaccine Clinics In New Mexico On HoldAssociated Press

Vaccination clinics scheduled for hundreds of public school employees throughout Albuquerque and surrounding communities won't happen after all.

New Mexico health officials say the state is focusing the current round of vaccinations on people age 75 and older and those who have underlying medical conditions that put them at risk from COVID-19.

But news of the scuttled clinics angered one state senator and left school administrators with two of the state's largest districts extremely disappointed.

Republican Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said the Health Department's actions demonstrate a callous disregard for families and teachers in his district.

The Health Department did not immediately answer questions about why the clinics were allowed to be organized in the first place, but Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins on Friday again spelled out the groups of people who are eligible for shots.

Albuquerque Interim Superintendent Scott Elder told the Albuquerque Journal that the school district was told by a provider they were initially allotted 2,000 vaccines. That was later dropped to 1,000. He said the district didn't learn until Tuesday that the clinic wasn't going to happen.

Rio Rancho Superintendent V. Sue Cleveland said staff was distressed about the decision. In a memo to staff, she said the district and its partners were transparent with the Health Department throughout the planning process.

The state has sent out numerous notices that it would follow phased distribution of the vaccine and that residents must register online if they want one. The registration system is designed to prioritize people based on factors such as age, health conditions and whether they are considered essential workers.

The state has received more than 203,000 doses so far, with about 163,000 being administered. State health officials have said they have been ordering from the federal government the maximum allowed and don't expect to run out.

The Health Department said it expects to begin vaccinating the general public by mid-2021.

Confirmed COVID-19 cases in New Mexico have surpassed 167,700 since the pandemic began. That includes 921 additional cases reported Friday. An additional 33 deaths also were reported, bringing the toll to nearly 3,080.

Biden's Pause On Oil Cause For Big Concern In New Mexico - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

President Joe Biden's 60-day moratorium on new oil and natural gas leases and drilling permits is prompting widespread concerns in New Mexico, where spending on education and other government programs hinges on the industry's success.

About half of production in the state happens on federal land and amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties each year. Republicans and some community leaders say any moves to make permanent the suspension would be economically devastating.

Congressional members from other western states also have concerns, saying the ripple effects of the moratorium will hurt small businesses already struggling because of the pandemic.

New Mexico's sole Republican in Congress, freshman Rep. Yvette Herrell, was the only member of the state's delegation to speak out after Biden's order was issued. She said she's putting her support behind Republican-backed legislation to prevent the Biden administration from imposing any permanent plans that would limit new leases and drilling permits on federal land.

The issue has been a thorny one for Democrats in New Mexico, where the oil and gas industry has been vilified over pollution concerns despite its role as the state's top economic driver. Aside from funneling revenues to the state's coffers, the industry supports about 100,000 direct and related jobs.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office told the AP Friday that the administration is reviewing the federal action and the short- and long-term fiscal implications for the state.

The order has drawn praise from environmentalists, who have been seeking to rein in development across the West.

New Mexico Leads Nation In Medicaid Health Care Enrollment - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico has surpassed all other states in its reliance on Medicaid health care as the coronavirus wreaks economic havoc and shifts the way people receive health care.

State Medicaid Division Director Nicole Comeaux says residents have flocked to the federal- and state-subsidized health care program for people living in poverty or on the cusp, with 43% enrollment statewide as of November.

That's up from 40% before the pandemic. The recent expansion could be costly if bonus federal matching funds expire as scheduled in April.

Comeaux says the state could see a $170 million shortfall for the coming fiscal year.

The Legislature convened this week to craft a spending plan for the coming fiscal year.

States have begun lobbying the administration of President Joe Biden for a more gradual reduction in the Medicaid match, Comeaux said.

Highlighting New Mexico's increasing reliance on Medicaid, Comeaux said that the program pays for three-quarters of births across the state. In rural Torrance and Sierra counties, more the three-quarters of the population is insured through Medicaid and the Children's Health Insurance Program, for families that earn too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to buy private insurance.

Navajo Nation Keeps Stay-Home Order, Lifts Weekend LockdownsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation has announced it is extending its stay-at-home order with a revised nightly curfew to limit the spread of COVID-19 while lifting weekend lockdowns to allow more vaccination events.

Tribal officials announced late Thursday that the actions in the tribe's latest public health emergency order will take effect Monday and run through at least Feb. 15. Officials said the daily curfew will run daily from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.

The tribe through Thursday reported a total of 26,782 cases and 940 known deaths on the reservation where 75 communities had uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 1 through Jan. 14.

New Mexico Lawmakers Among Beneficiaries Of Relief Grants - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Direct grants to small businesses and nonprofit organizations that are a hallmark of New Mexico's coronavirus relief effort have been awarded to several state legislators as well as enterprises that have sued the state over Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's aggressive public health restrictions.

Nearly $100 million in grants were paid out to 6,800 businesses and nonprofits at the end of 2020, illustrating the breadth of the economic distress brought on by the pandemic.

Public records obtained by The Associated Press show successful applicants included businesses overseen by five current or recent state senators, a family-oriented amusement park that has sued the governor as it seeks to reopen, numerous Catholic charities, local chambers of commerce and hundreds of struggling restaurants and hotels run by lone proprietors and business magnates.

Marquita Russel, CEO of the New Mexico Finance Authority that administers the grants, said a high priority was given to the hard-hit leisure and hospitality industries. Money ran out with thousands of applications still pending, she said.

"We were able to fund about 47% or 48% of all applications submitted," Russel said.

Grants were awarded to businesses run by four Democratic state senators — Sens. Joseph Cervantes of Las Cruces, George Muñoz of Gallup, John Sapien of Corrales and Gabriel Ramos of Silver City. They recused themselves from voting in November on a bill that authorized the grant program, along with additional relief for the unemployed and immigrants without legal status.

Republican Sen. William Sharer of Farmington voted against the legislation. His debt collection business received a $15,000 grant.

Sharer said he objected to the economic aid on principle because he would rather see a repeal of public health restrictions that have forced the closure of entertainment venues, banned indoor dining and limited occupancy at many essential businesses. However, he said the grant his business received meant "a couple more people stayed on the payroll."

Cervantes, an attorney and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, confirmed that his Las Cruces-based law office was awarded $15,000 and that demand for legal services has fallen off, like much of the economy.

"I think we've done a good job in making sure it reaches all parts of the state and doesn't show any bias," Cervantes said of relief. "I have heard from some businesses that didn't qualify and are disappointed, and I'm disappointed for them."

Muñoz said he recused himself from voting in November because it might benefit his 20-employee construction company and a residential property company overseen by his wife. The property company forwarded information about rent payment subsidies to its trailer-park tenants, he said.

His construction company had to expand its payroll amid new pandemic-related costs so the $15,000 grant came in handy, Muñoz said. He brushed off the idea of any personal financial motives.

"I'm still driving the same truck. I'm still wearing the same boots," Muñoz said.

Sapien, whose insurance business received $10,000, has retired from the Legislature. Ramos, whose Silver City-based business received $10,000, lost his Democratic primary-election bid.

Top-ranked Democratic legislators have placed new economic relief measures at the top the agenda for a 60-day session that convened Tuesday. Prominent relief proposals would ease the repayment terms of a low-interest loan program for small businesses that draws on a multibillion-dollar trust fund. The program has loaned about $40 million — out of $400 million made available.

Sen. Jacob Candelaria described the proposed loan changes as "very, very generous and designed to get the money out the door and get people to use it."

Lawmakers also want to pay down by $300 million the state's growing debts toward unemployment benefits to avoid future payroll taxes on businesses.

Colin Keegan, founder of artisan distillery Santa Fe Spirits, missed out on getting a grant. The business has temporarily closed a tasting room in downtown Santa Fe and laid off half its staff, while distilling alcohol-based hand sanitizer to try to survive financially.

"That's shocking that legislators are taking the money," Keegan said. "I don't know everyone's situation. It doesn't sit well, I can put it that way."

At least six businesses received grants as they were suing the state for compensation, arguing that health restrictions constitute a regulatory "taking." The state Supreme Court is weighing whether to let the lawsuits proceed.

Attorney Blair Dunn, who represents plaintiffs including Hinkle Family Fun Center, says the businesses have an obligation to pursue available public aid despite their ongoing cases. The amusement park received a $50,000 award.

Grants also went to oilfield companies and solar installers, the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and the Billy the Kid Museum in Fort Sumner. Donut shops to four-star restaurants were among the eateries to get money.

Grants worth $338,000 went to 14 businesses associated with Gerald Peters — an art dealer and philanthropist with diverse real estate and business holdings in Santa Fe that are major sources of employment. That includes the Rio Chama Steakhouse, which is frequented by legislators and lobbyists.

New Mexico Governor Signs Bill To Fund Legislature, Security - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed the first bill of the 2021 legislative session, which funds legislative operations in the state capitol, including an unprecedented amount of security spending in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington D.C.

House Bill 1 provides around $32 million in funding for legislative staff, as well as meals and travel stipends for unsalaried legislators. That is a small fraction of the $7 billion general fund the legislature will be allocated during this year’s 60-day session.

It included $2.1 million in additional security funding, including $675,000 for overseeing the National Guard as part of an unprecedented lockdown of the capitol complex following the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C.

The New Mexico legislative session has been closed to the public because of the pandemic, and the capitol is guarded by soldiers, sheriff's deputies and state police due to threats.

Two layers of fencing ringed most of the area, and police deployed video surveillance towers. Legislators vacated the building Wednesday in part to avoid occupying the building during the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

The bill also provides $200,000 to pay for the governor's legal team as it faces ongoing lawsuits related to pandemic-related public health orders.

Prison Inmates Among Latest Confirmed Cases In New Mexico – Associated Press

Ten inmates at a state prison and one inmate at a federal lockup in central New Mexico are among the latest confirmed COVID-19 cases.

State health officials on Thursday reported an additional 997 cases. That puts the statewide total since the pandemic began at nearly 167,000 cases.

Another 35 deaths were also reported, bringing that tally to nearly 3,050. Hospitalizations also remained steady, with more than 640 people being treated around the state.

Despite lower daily case numbers, state officials have been encouraging people to continue following mandates that include wearing masks and social distancing as all but two of New Mexico's 33 counties still have elevated spread and positive rates.

They're also pushing for more people to register to get vaccinated. Just over one-fifth of the state's population has signed up so far and about 163,000 doses have been administered around the state.

Meanwhile, the New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division will allow some new vehicle registration appointments starting Jan. 25, more than two months after registrations were stopped due to a spike in COVID-19 infections.

Navajo Nation Reports 166 New COVID-19 Cases, 7 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Thursday reported 166 new COVID-19 cases and seven more deaths. 

The latest figures bring the total reported coronavirus cases on the reservation to 26,782 with 940 known deaths. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says that while people are getting vaccinated, it's crucial to keep in mind that another variant of the virus has been found in nearby regions.  

The Navajo Department of Health this week has identified 75 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 1-14.  

Nez says residents still need to remain vigilant and practice health safety measures like staying home.  

New Mexico Universities Feel Pinch Of Pandemic - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Officials at New Mexico's two largest universities say freshman enrollment is holding steady if not increasing despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

However, University of New Mexico President Garnett Stokes acknowledged that enrollment overall has decreased and officials are concerned about the negative trend.

Stokes on Thursday delivered her annual state of the university address as colleges and universities across the country grapple with shrinking enrollments.

At New Mexico State University, President John Floros expects spring enrollment to hold steady. He said the challenges going forward will be finding more ways to make higher education accessible to more people.

New Mexico's lottery scholarship once covered 100% of tuition costs, but that has been reduced over the years. Lawmakers tightened eligibility and made other changes due to demand, rising tuition costs and the volatility of lottery revenues.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's latest budget proposal calls for funneling more than $122 million to the Higher Education Department to further develop a scholarship program that would once again put the state on a tuition-free path for residents.

Albuquerque, County, Water Authority To Promote Pay Equality Associated Press

The city of Albuquerque, Bernalillo County and their joint water authority say they will promote gender pay equality by giving a 5% contract preference to businesses that pay men and women equitably.

A statement released Thursday said the preference being offered by the city, the county and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Authority means that a company's bid amount will be considered 5% lower if equal pay is verified within the company.

According to the statement, agencies in the three governments will implement the change starting Monday and that a company's pay equity reporting form is valid for one year.

APS Announces Six Semifinalists For Top Post By Nash Jones, KUNM

The largest school district in New Mexico has announced the semifinalists for its top post.  

The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education confirmed Wednesday a slate of six candidates in its search for the district’s next superintendent.

APS says that the candidates include three people selected during the first round of the search, which was halted in March due to the pandemic. Two others were identified when the search process relaunched in November. Interim Superintendent Scott Elder is also included in the group.

The list includes an Albuquerque principal, an assistant superintendent from Illinois, an assistant professor from the University of Tennessee and a former superintendent and consultant from New York.

The applications of each of the six candidates are posted for review on the APS website.

According to a district statement, finalists from the group will be announced Feb. 5 following interviews scheduled earlier in the week. Another round of interviews with the finalists, along with a public forum, are planned for mid-March.

The district says community members will be able to submit questions ahead of the forum, which will likely take place online.

APS says its board hopes the new superintendent will be announced by the end of March and start the job July 1.