FRI: State Logs 2nd Highest Daily COVID Death Count, Auditor Slams MLK Commission Finances, + More

Dec 11, 2020

New Mexico Reports 2nd Highest Daily COVID-19 Death Count Associated Press

New Mexico health officials say another 43 people have died due to COVID-19 complications. The number released Friday is among the highest daily death tolls for the state in recent weeks.

Nearly two-thirds of the latest fatalities involved people in the 70s or older, while one of the deaths was a McKinley County man in his 20s who had underlying conditions.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said her prayers are with those who have lost loved ones and she urged people to abide by the state's public health restrictions.

Officials also reported an additional 1,849 confirmed cases, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to 116,565.

New Mexico is preparing next week to receive its first round of vaccine doses. Officials say they will be delivered to frontline health care workers.

New Mexico is preparing next week to receive its first round of vaccine doses. Under the state's distribution plan, frontline health care workers will be first in line.

Auditor Finds New Mexico MLK Panel Failed To Meet Fiscal DutiesAssociated Press

State Auditor Brian Colón says the Martin Luther King Jr. State Commission and its executive director are failing to meet their fiscal responsibilities.

Colón this week released audit findings, saying his office has yet to see what procedures have been implemented to address what he called critical issues. He said the shortcomings are concerning.

Commission executive director Leonard Waites vowed to provide details of new policies and procedures by Dec. 21.

The commission's problems go back years. The former executive director and two others were convicted of felony embezzlement and fraud for offenses that occurred from 2013 through 2015.

The commission was created to promote the late civil rights leader's philosophy of nonviolence, unity and opportunity for all through various programs. It organizes MLK youth leadership conferences and other events around Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Among the issues identified by the audits, the commission failed to provide invoices and other documentation to support spending. Internal controls related to governance and management also were insufficient.

The auditor's office said it plans to continue monitoring the commission's progress and asked commission board members to do the same.

State Reports 43 Additional COVID-19 Deaths As Debate Arises Over VaccineKUNM, Associated Press

State health officials reported 1,849 new COVID-19 cases on Friday and 43 additional deaths.
That bring the total number of deaths to 1,889. There have been 116,565 cases since the pandemic began.

There are 932 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state. State health officials on Thursday issued orders that could limit nonessential surgeries and prepare for rationing of other medical services as the coronavirus pandemic strains resources and personnel at hospitals and intensive care centers.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday there are 17,500 doses of a vaccine from drugmaker Pfizer reserved for New Mexico, the initial allotment to health workers at high or moderate risk of exposure.

State health officials plan to channel initial doses of a separate vaccine from Moderna toward staff and residents at long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, if and when the vaccine receives federal approval.

Decisions are still pending about which populations to vaccinate after that. State health officials say critical workers and vulnerable populations include police and corrections officers, public transit workers, child care center personnel and possibly teachers.

Leading state legislators on education policy have joined Lt. Gov. Howie Morales in urging the state to place a top priority on vaccinating educators alongside medical workers in an effort to return students to in-person learning as soon as possible.

The vast majority of students across New Mexico are studying remotely from home in response to the pandemic.

Navajo Nation Reports 231 New COVID-19 Cases, 12 More Deaths Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials are reporting 231 new COVID-19 cases and 12 more deaths as they prepared to implement a weekend-long lockdown for reservation residents.

The tribe has now reported 19,199 cases and 711 known deaths since the pandemic began. The lockdown that begins at 8 p.m. Friday will require everyone on the reservation except essential workers to stay at home.

All businesses are required to remain closed until the lockdown ends at 5:30 a.m. Monday. The tribe also has a general stay-at-home order in place through Dec. 28.

Tribal officials have said nearly all intensive care unit beds on the reservation are being used as COVID-19 cases surge.

They warn that the tribe is nearing a point where health care workers will have to make difficult decisions about providing care with limited hospital resources.

FBI Says Agent Shot, Wounded While Serving Warrant In New Mexico Associated Press

The FBI says an FBI agent was shot and wounded Friday while helping serve a federal search warrant in Albuquerque.

FBI spokesman Frank Fisher said the agent was in stable condition when transported to a hospital for treatment of the injury and that it was not considered life-threatening.

Fisher said in a brief statement that a suspect in the shooting was in custody. No identities were released and

Fisher said no additional information was immediately available because the warrant was sealed and the investigation was continuing.

Santa Fe Approves New Short-Term Rental Restrictions Associated Press

City officials in Santa Fe have approved new restrictions for short-term rental owners who offer rooms and homes as vacation lodging.

It's an effort to curtail the number of rentals operating without permits. The Santa Fe Council voted 8-1 on Thursday to limit the number of short-term rental units to one per person.

The restriction also limits owners who use services such as Airbnb and Vrbo to one lodger a week in residential neighborhoods. And it adds new reporting requirements aimed at locating and cracking down on illegal rentals.

Supporters of the new restrictions have said they are needed to maintain a sense of community in neighborhoods overwhelmed by short-term rentals.

Some people have argued that the restrictions will not do enough to stop rentals for overtaking historic Santa Fe neighborhoods.

Wisconsin Air National Guard Unit Grounds Jets After CrashAssociated Press

A Wisconsin Air National Guard unit has grounded its pilots while the fatal crash of an F-16 fighter jet is being investigated.

The crash happened Tuesday night during a training exercise over Michigan's Upper Peninsula. On Friday, the Madison-based 115th Fighter Wing identified the pilot who died as Air Force Capt. Durwood "Hawk" Jones from Albuquerque.

The 37-year-old joined the Air National Guard in 2011. He was a decorated combat veteran who had been deployed to Japan, Korea and Afghanistan. He is survived by his wife and two children.

The cause of the crash is being investigated.

Indian Health Service Plans For COVID Vaccine Distribution - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

The federal agency that provides health care to Native Americans says it's expecting more than enough vaccines to protect all the people working in the hospitals and clinics that it funds.

The Indian Health Service was treated much like a state for distribution purposes. It submitted a plan to vaccinate more than 2 million Native Americans and Alaska Natives.

The agency expects to receive 22,425 doses of the Pfizer vaccine next week and 46,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine by the end of the year.

Those doses will cover the more than 44,000 people who work at hundreds of facilities that are receiving vaccine allocations through the Indian Health Service.

Chief medical officer for the Navajo area Indian Health Service Dr. Loretta Christensen said the Navajo

Nation is expecting 3,900 doses on Monday and Tuesday that will be delivered under police escort. About 7,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine should arrive the following week.

Christensen said those vaccines will cover healthcare workers, emergency medical staff, traditional practitioners working in Indian Health Service facilities, and the staff and patients in long-term nursing facilities.

The Navajo, Phoenix and Oklahoma City areas serve the largest populations of Native Americans, meaning they will get more vaccines than other Indian Health Service areas.

The Alaska region chose to get allocations from the state, while one facility in the Navajo area — the Utah Navajo Health System — also went with the state for distribution.

Immigrant Requests Pour In For New Mexico Virus Relief Funds - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico officials have received more than 30,000 applications for virus relief payments meant for residents regardless of immigration status.

State lawmakers recently approved $5 million in emergency financial assistance for low-income state residents who did not receive a federal relief payment earlier this year. That includes undocumented immigrants, as well as spouses and children.

The deadline to apply for the aid is Friday.

The state Human Services Department has discretion in how the payments will be distributed. It could send smaller amounts to more residents or use available tax information to prioritize those most in need.

The emergency aid is part of a $330 million stimulus package approved by lawmakers last month. Included in the seven-page bill was a provision for $750 payments to individuals who were not eligible for the $1,200 federal relief checks sent earlier this year.

The vast majority of immigrants in the country without legal permission work and pay taxes but are not eligible for federal welfare programs or the unemployment insurance they pay into.

In New Mexico, where the majority of immigrants are from Mexico and Central American countries, Latino-focused organizing groups say financial assistance is a public health issue. Like other frontline workers, immigrants without legal status faced unpaid furloughs while awaiting tests or had to decide if they would take time off work after testing positive for COVID-19.

City governments are also spending portions of their relief funds to send direct payments to immigrants. In Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces, cities are offering between $750 and $2,000 per household.

All stimulus payments are expected to be sent out by the end of December.

New Mexico Expects Vaccine Delivery Within Day Of Approval - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday the first doses of coronavirus vaccine from drug maker Pfizer are expected to arrive in New Mexico within 24 hours of pending federal approval.

There are 17,500 doses of the vaccine reserved for New Mexico, which plans to distribute the initial allotment to health workers at high risk of exposure.

The state sent notifications Wednesday to 37 hospitals that are expected to receive initial vaccines.

New Mexico health officials have issued new emergency orders that could limit nonessential surgeries and prepare for rationing of other medical services as the coronavirus pandemic strains resources and personnel at hospitals and intensive care centers.

The state Department of Health issued the two new public health orders amid a sustained surge in coronavirus infections and deaths across much of the state.

One order allows hospitals and acute-care facilities to limit surgeries and the second order changes liability standards for emergency medical providers as the state prepares for possible triage procedures that might limit care to some individuals.

Gov. Lujan Grisham said the health orders go into effect Dec. 11 and will last until at least Jan. 4.

New Mexico on Thursday reported an additional newly confirmed 1,791 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total to 114,731 since the pandemic began. An additional 23 deaths also were reported.

Lawsuit Alleges Secrecy At New Mexico Prison Agency - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A newly founded watchdog organization on prison conditions says it is colliding with a culture of secrecy at the New Mexico Corrections Department that interferes with monitoring complaints of civil rights violations by inmates.

The New Mexico Prison & Jail Project on Thursday announced a lawsuit against officials at the Department of Corrections alleging that the agency has failed to respond on time to a request for public records.

The Albuquerque-based nonprofit group says at least 10 lawsuits have been filed against the Corrections Department so far in 2020 concerning compliance with the state inspection of public records act.

Corrections Department spokesperson Eric Harrison declined to comment directly on the lawsuit and said in email, “Our agency understands the importance of the Inspection of Public Records Act process, and we remain committed to transparency.” The agency has extended its response deadline to late December for a records request initially filed on Oct 12.

Sponsors of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project include the Texas Civil Rights Project. Advisors and staff at the New Mexico project say they plan to advocate for better treatment of inmates — including medical attention amid the coronavirus pandemic — at state and privately operated prisons and county jails through litigation.

Any financial awards from the state — ultimately from taxpayers — would be reinvested into litigation aimed at improving prison conditions, according to a representative of the New Mexico Prison & Jail Project.

Window Opens For Virgin Galactic Test Flight From Spaceport - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The window opened Friday for Virgin Galactic's first rocket-powered test flight from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico as the company prepares for commercial flights next year, but the exact timing of the launch will depend on the weather.

Virgin Galactic posted on social media that the flight crew is ready but do not plan to fly before Saturday.

The flight was initially planned for November. But it was pushed back because of COVID-19 restrictions stemming from the state's public health orders.

CEO Michael Colglazier said the company has minimized the number of people onsite at its headquarters at Spaceport America in accordance with state mandates and that only spaceport staff critical to the mission will be present.

Officials with Virgin Galactic and the state-financed spaceport said the test flight will mark another key milestone in the march toward commercial flights. The impending flight will be the third space flight for Virgin Galactic and the first from New Mexico.

It has been years since British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and then Gov. Bill Richardson hatched the idea of erecting the world's first purpose-build spaceport in a remote stretch of the New Mexico desert. Branson will be among the first passengers sometime in the first quarter next year.

More than 600 customers from around the world have purchased tickets to be launched into the lower fringes of space where they can experience weightlessness and get a view of the Earth below.

The original story has been updated with details on timing.

University Of New Mexico Files Complaint Over Naming RightsAssociated Press

The University of New Mexico has filed a complaint against one of its biggest donors in a naming rights dispute.

The university confirmed Thursday that it's seeking arbitration in a dispute with Dreamstyle Remodeling.

The company entered into what was expected to be a 10-year, $9 million agreement in 2017. The agreement included naming rights to University Stadium and University Arena.

Dreamstyle owner Larry Chavez paid the university $1.5 million, but there's conflict over what is still owed and if there is a contract in place at all.

Chavez says he proposed a new deal, but the university wouldn't consider it until previous obligations were fulfilled.

Chavez signed the original deal with Learfield IMG College, a multimedia rights company that ended its relationship with the university last year.

At the time, Dreamstyle and the university entered into negotiations to settle the amounts Dreamstyle already owed under the 2017 sponsorship agreement.

The university contends Dreamstyle failed to meet its obligations under the 2019 interim payment schedule and still owes more than $1 million.

Navajo Officials Work To Add Sites For Virus Isolation, CareFarmington Daily Times, Associated Press

Navajo health officials are working to boost the number of isolation and alternate care sites for those infected with the coronavirus.

The Farmington Daily Times reported Tuesday the tribe had awarded a $50 million contract to Pacific Architects and Engineers Inc. and AMI Expeditionary Healthcare in October to operate alternate care sites and to provide clinical and logistical support.

The Office of the President and Vice President said in a statement the locations will be designated specifically for those who have tested positive for the coronavirus to prevent household spread.

There have been 18,575 new confirmed cases and 693 confirmed deaths from the coronavirus in the Navajo Nation.

An alternate care site has been set up in Chinle and isolation sites have been arranged in hotels in Farmington and Gallup. Additional sites will open in Tuba City and Holbrook.