FRI: State Health Secretary To Retire After Pandemic Subsides, + More

Jul 3, 2020

Top New Mexico Public Health Official Announces RetirementAssociated Press

New Mexico's Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel on Friday announced her intention to retire once the current wave of coronavirus infections subsides.

Kunkel, an attorney and former pediatric social worker, cited the physical and mental demands of her work at the forefront on the state's efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who once led the Department of Health, announced a nationwide search for a successor. Kunkel was appointed in January 2019.

The state also is recruiting a new state epidemiologist after the recent departure of Michael Landen. The Health Department is in the midst of hiring at least 200 specialists to identify outbreaks and trace exposure at it shifts toward a rapid-response model for limiting spread.

State health officials announced 257 additional COVID-19 cases Friday, bringing the total to 12,776.

That included 15 more cases among state and federal inmates in Otero and Torrance counties. Eight more people have died, bringing that total to 511.

New Minor Party Pushes For 'Fusion Voting' In New Mexico - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A political group that helped a slate of progressive-minded legislative candidates prevail in New Mexico's Democratic primary has registered as a political party.

The New Mexico Working Families Party on Thursday announced its certification by state election regulators as a minor political party.

Leaders said they hope to establish fusion voting in which more than one political party can support a common candidate on the general election ballot.

Working Families also wants minor party members to be able to vote in major party primaries. The state currently operates a closed primary election system.

Working Families Party state director Eric Griego said in a statement that the organization is dedicated to challenging candidates who are out of step with core progressive issues or beholden to corporate special interests.

The group helped upstart candidates defeat powerful incumbent Democrats in key leadership and committee posts including Sens. Mary Kay Papen of Las Cruces, John Arthur Smith of Deming and Clemente Sanchez of Grants.

Founded in 1998 in New York, the organization has branches and chapters in 15 states mostly in the eastern U.S.

Navajo Nation Facing Another Weekend Virus Curfew Associated Press

Tribal police and the New Mexico National Guard plan to enforce a weekend curfew on the Navajo Nation.

The sprawling reservation has been trying to contain a coronavirus outbreak. Tribal President Jonathan Nez says the curfew that starts at 8 p.m. Friday and expires at 5 a.m. Monday is the first of three consecutive weekend lockdowns.

He warned that enforcement on the reservation that spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah will be strict.

The tribe reported 56 new cases on Thursday and two additional deaths, bringing the total to 371 deaths and nearly 7,700 confirmed cases.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough for most people. But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Spaceport America CEO Placed On Administrative LeaveAssociated Press

The CEO of New Mexico's commercial spacecraft launch facility has been placed on administrative leave, but state officials aren't saying why.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reports Dan Hicks was recently placed on leave after confirming it with New Mexico Economic Development Secretary Alicia Keyes. She chairs the New Mexico Spaceport Authority's board of directors. However, Keyes did not provide any details.

Among Hicks' responsibilities was strengthening a business model to sustain the spaceport, which was initially constructed in Sierra County between 2006 and 2012 with $220 million in public funding.

Previously, Hicks served for 34 years at White Sands Missile Range, ultimately assisting WSMR's commanding general and its executive director.

The spaceport's anchor tenant, Virgin Galactic, aims to launch its first commercial passengers into space this year. It has also welcomed additional aerospace companies as tenants, including SpinLaunch, AeroVironment, and Up Aerospace.

Agency Says State Lawmaker Hasn't Met Request To Repay $7KAssociated Press

A state lawmaker has yet to respond to a request to reimburse nearly $7,800 to an agency that promotes the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Regional Coalition of LANL Communities executive director Eric Vasquez told the Santa Fe New Mexican that the taxpayer-funded agency sent a letter to state Rep. Andrea Romero in May.

But so far, the group has not received a replay. The request is linked to "impermissible expenses" during Romero's previous role as executive director.

Romero previously reimbursed the agency $2,200, but that was before the state auditor's office released a report in August 2018 that identified 18 negative findings. 

Questions Around More Aggressive Mask Enforcement RemainSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press, KUNM

As New Mexico implements more aggressive enforcement of the state order to wear masks in public, questions remain about how it will be enforced.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday said people who ignore mask requirements in public places can be fined $100 and that businesses that flout the health order will see workplace citations and misdemeanor criminal charges.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the governor suggested the ramped up enforcement would begin this holiday weekend. Local law enforcement agencies told the newspaper they will defer to the authority of the New Mexico State Police to enforce the state order. The state police did not respond to questions about enforcement details.

A spokesperson for the Santa Fe Police Dept. said their officers will enforce the city’s ordinance, which has lesser fines of up to $50, but will begin with warnings. The Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office told the New Mexican it will not be citing residents not wearing masks, instead simply asking them to put one on.

Spokesperson for the governor, Nora Meyers Sackett, says local law enforcement agencies have the authority to enforce the state order and should do so.

New Mexico Cases Total 12,520 Heading Into Holiday Weekend - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials are reporting an additional 248 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total of confirmed infections to 12,520. 

Another three deaths also were reported Thursday, bringing that total to more than 500. 

The Albuquerque Journal reported it was the second-highest daily total since the start of the pandemic and was partially driven by a doubling of cases in Bernalillo County in one day to 97.

In southern New Mexico, Doña Ana County reported an additional 42 confirmed cases. Members of the county commission and the Las Cruces City Council are urging residents to stay home for the Fourth of July holiday weekend. 

They reiterated mandates by the state that people wear masks and practice social distancing. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Wednesday warned that there will be more aggressive enforcement of the state's public health order, including individual fines, to rein in rising coronavirus infection rates.

The state also reinstated a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all out-of-state visitors and announced it would be holding off on changes to the public health order until July 15, after reopening restaurants and breweries at partial capacity in June.

Groups Call For Meetings As US Lab Preps For Weapons Work - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Several groups are asking state and federal officials to hold semi-annual public meetings as Los Alamos National Laboratory prepares to resume and ramp up production of key components for the nation's nuclear weapons stockpile.

The groups outlined their request in a recent letter to the U.S. Energy Department and the New Mexico Environment Department.

Los Alamos National Laboratory in northern New Mexico is in line for more federal funding to manufacture plutonium triggers for the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The work will be split between LANL and the Savannah River Site in South Carolina. At stake are jobs and billions of federal dollars to upgrade buildings or construct new factories.

State environmental officials are considering a draft air emissions permit that would regulate emissions from the lab's manufacturing facilities.

Members of New Mexico's Democratic congressional delegation have supported the plutonium work, saying it will bring more funding to the region.

But watchdog groups have been critical over the decades, citing repeated missed deadlines, overspent budgets and concerns about the generation of new radioactive waste.

Home Deliveries Don't Get Food-Tax Exemption During Pandemic - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Taxes are being levied on home-delivered groceries that are tax free when purchased at stores in New Mexico, undercutting incentives to stay at home during the coronavirus pandemic.

A panel of government income experts noted the problem Thursday as they delved into the financial consequences of COVID-19 and New Mexico's stay-at-home order to avoid infections.

New Mexico lawmakers removed the gross receipts tax from sales of most food items in 2004, but the exemption covers only on-site sales.

Gross receipt taxes on sales and services range from about 5.5% in some rural areas to more than 9% in Española.

Roswell Teen Charged For November Online School ThreatAssociated Press

The FBI says a teenage boy who made online threats that led to the lockdown of Roswell High School is facing a federal charge.

FBI officials said in a news release Wednesday that the 18-year-old has been charged with interstate communications containing a threat to injure the person of another.

According to authorities, Matthew Lee Herbert went on the social media app Snapchat on Nov. 12. He allegedly posted a message with an image of a semi-automatic weapon and a threat specifically targeted at Roswell High School.

The message led to Roswell High School being shut down. The boy remains in custody.

Virgin Galactic Prepares To Unveil Spaceship's Interior Associated Press

Virgin Galactic is preparing to unveil the cabin interior of its spaceship as final testing of the craft nears completion in southern New Mexico.

The space tourism company on Tuesday announced that the cabin's interior will be revealed during a virtual event planned for July 28 that will be streamed on YouTube.

Company officials consider the cabin of SpaceShipTwo the centerpiece of a customer's journey, saying it was designed to provide a level of intimacy as customers are launched into the lower fringes of space where they can experience weightlessness and get a view of the Earth below.  

More than 600 customers from around the world have purchased tickets for a flight aboard Virgin Galactic's spaceship. The suborbital flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before gliding to a landing.

Officials have yet to offer a date for the start of commercial flights, saying final testing is ongoing. The next round of tests will involve rocket-powered flights.