FRI: State Officials Say Lives Were Saved Amid Pandemic Challenges, + More

Mar 12, 2021

New Mexico Officials: Lives Saved Amid Pandemic Challenges - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico is stronger having been through the challenges, grief and anxiety brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday as she acknowledged the upheaval and uncertainty over the past 12 months.

It has been a year since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In that time, New Mexico has recorded nearly 190,000 COVID-19 cases and more than 3,800 deaths. Hospitals were pushed to the brink of having to ration care, unemployment ballooned, schools raced to adopt virtual learning, many businesses had to shut their doors for good and families mourned the loss of loved ones.

The Democratic governor said in a statement that the strength of health care and other front-line workers, parents, educators and others has been a source of optimism.

"Having weathered the storm, we will take stock of our surroundings, understand we are stronger for having been through it and begin again in earnest the focused work of transforming our state for the benefit of all families and workers," Lujan Grisham said.

The governor and members of her Cabinet have defended the state's handling of the pandemic over the past year. 

Dr. David Scrase, head of the state Human Services Department, said tough public health restrictions early on — such as mask-wearing and banning public gatherings — along with testing, contact tracing and vaccination put New Mexico in a better position than many other states.

A collaborative effort by state agencies and private health care providers to address the pandemic on a statewide level rather than individually also helped, he said. 

Without the combined efforts, he said modeling shows New Mexico would have seen more than 1.8 million infections, six times the number of hospitalizations and four times the number of deaths.

"Knowing that we have saved over 15,000 New Mexican lives is incredibly gratifying for every state of New Mexico and health care employee," he said. 

For every new infection, Scrase said about 50 people are being vaccinated and that vaccinations now account for lowering the incidence of new cases by more than 60%.

When the pandemic began, the scientific literature on COVID-19 was absent and very little information was coming out of China, Scrase said. One of the state's biggest challenges was to collect as much data as possible, build new information technology systems, databases and dashboards and assemble a medical advisory team. 

"So I think that initial guidance about being science and data orientated really set the tone for what we did, and we're making some really effective decisions now as a result of having that data," Scrase said.

Some Republican lawmakers said Thursday that the governor's health orders were issued unilaterally with no input from the Legislature or the public.

"Today, the governor and her administration are doing a victory lap, applauding one another and patting themselves on the back," Senate Republican leadership said in a statement. "Though as we look back on this past year, we are disheartened — disheartened that our students have lost a year of education, that many of our citizens have lost a year of employment, and that too many New Mexicans have lost everything they have ever worked for."

Officials with the state's largest health care providers also reflected on Thursday's milestone, calling it a somber day. They talked about being terrified last March and April as they braced for the first wave of COVID-19 cases in a state that already had issues with access to care and a lack of hospital beds.

Lillian Montoya, the CEO of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe, said health care workers and hospitals were tested in unimaginable ways but that working together resulted in a new way of doing business to ensure people could get the care they needed. 

That meant constant meetings, phone calls and emails among hospitals to juggle patients and equipment such as ventilators. It also meant sharing data and ideas.

"That was a beautiful thing," she said. "When you think about the last 12 months, every single hospital in this state cared for patients from another community other than their own. It was incredible."

Despite the spread of the virus easing, health officials said they are still cautious and will be watching any trends that develop as more commercial and day-to-day activities resume. They also pointed to spring break, the upcoming Easter holiday and students returning to school.

"Watchful and waiting is definitely the mode of right now," University of New Mexico Hospitals CEO Kate Becker said. "The more vaccinations we can deliver, the less worrisome all of this becomes."

State data shows more than 1.6 million New Mexicans over 16 — or about three-quarters of the population — are eligible to be vaccinated. About 707,000 doses have been administered so far.

New Mexico Lawmakers Divided Over Early Childhood Funding - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report for America

Lawmakers looking to boost funding for early childhood educational initiatives by tapping a $20 billion endowment drew criticism from across the political spectrum during a recent debate, indicating they're in for a spirited fight during the final week of the legislative session.

The proposal would draw an additional 1% per year from the Land Grant Permanent Fund to fund universal pre-K, infant and toddler care as well as optional home visits for new parents.

Proponents want to earmark the funds for early childhood programs as a way to address the state's endemic child poverty problems.

To expand the fund's uses and increase withdrawals, legislators would have to approve a proposed constitutional amendment. Voters would then have the final say in a statewide election, which could happen as soon as this fall.

In the short term, the Early Childhood Education and Care Department is expected to get a one-time increase in funding thanks to the federal stimulus passed this week.

In meeting Thursday night, bill sponsor Rep. Antonio Maestas argued that annual cash increases in the endowment are far outpacing investments in children.

The Albuquerque Democrat held up a yellow note listing percentages that showed the fund has doubled in size over the past 11 years, while withdrawals increased by half.

"We are undercutting current generations of children for the mythical future generation of children and watching this fund continue to grow enormously large," Maestas said.

The Senate Finance Committee is expected to take up the bill Saturday and will hear public comments.

With a week left in the session, the measure would need approval by the full Senate. If any changes are made, the House would have to consider it again before it gets to the governor's desk.

Similar proposals have failed over the last five legislative sessions.

Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria said Thursday he opposes the bill because of the focus on early childhood education. He wants to expand disbursements for K-12 public schools, which state courts have ruled are underfunded.

"I just don't feel comfortable sending a proposal to the voters that leaves out a very important part of this equation," Candelaria said.

That sentiment was echoed by House Speaker Brian Egolf, who said he's confident that the proposal will make it to voters. He said the funding for early childhood education could be reduced to as little as 0.25%

"The question is, will it be 1% for early childhood education or will there be some allocation for K-12 education? I think the Senate very much wants to see a kindergarten-through-12th grade component to this with a special focus on teacher salaries and funding to go to at-risk students," Egolf said.

On Friday, the Senate was scheduled to debate a $10 million pilot program to send additional funding to school districts based on an "at-risk index" of families that schools serve.

There also are disputes over long-term growth forecasts for the fund, which is fed by oil and gas revenue and annual investment returns.

"We want this (fund) to grow but at the same time, we want to cut the legs off the industry that makes it grow. So I don't think these numbers are even right," said Republican Sen. William Sharer of San Juan County, which is home to one of the state's energy-producing basins.

The federal government created the Land Grant Permanent Fund in the late 19th and early 20th centuries ahead of New Mexico's transition to statehood to prevent mismanagement of mineral extraction revenues. Its use was dedicated to public schools.

It has grown to around $20 billion, making it one of the largest educational endowments in the world.

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Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/ Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.

US Says Ranger Tried To Diffuse Run-In Before Using Taser - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

A National Park Service ranger used a stun gun on a man who identifies as Native American after trying repeatedly to diffuse a confrontation on federal land in New Mexico, according to an internal investigation released Friday.

Video of the Dec. 27 run-in drew outcry from Indigenous activists as it showed a ranger at the Petroglyph National Monument asking Darrell House for identification. Authorities said House, who identifies as Navajo and Oneida, was seen climbing on petroglyph cliff features off-trail in violation of park rules.

The agency determined that the ranger's actions were consistent with policy and appropriate given the circumstances. It also said Park Service officials met with local Indigenous leaders and others as part of an effort to strengthen cultural awareness at the monument and in the broader community.

"The National Park Service remains committed to respecting the rights and dignity of every individual. This incident provided a learning experience for us to build on how we incorporate tribal and pueblo perspectives in our everyday work," Park Service Regional Director Mike Reynolds said in a statement.

In video that House shared on social media, the ranger asked for his identification and House responded that he was back on the trail and didn't need to provide his ID.

The ranger told House that he was refusing a lawful order and would have to be detained until he could be identified. House walked away as the ranger told him to stop. House picked up his dog in one hand and lifted his cellphone in the other and began yelling for help as he was Tased.

The video shows him screaming and rolling on the ground. The ranger repeatedly asks for him to put his hands behind his back as House raises his hands and at times folds them in front of his chest while calling for help.

The Park Service had released a portion of the ranger's body camera footage showing what led up to the incident. It released more video Friday.

It shows the ranger telling House that Native American tribes from the area consider Petroglyph National Monument sacred and that visitors are supposed to stay on designated trails to preserve cultural resources and allow desert vegetation to recover. The video also showed House giving the ranger a fake name and trying to walk away.

House was cited for interfering with agency functions, concealing his identity and being off-trail. He's due in court later this month.

House has not returned messages from The Associated Press. In social media posts at the time, he said he went to the monument to meditate. More recent posts focus on his artwork, criticism of law enforcement and the push by Native American tribes to regain their ancestral homelands.

Reynolds said the Park Service will be working with New Mexico's Indigenous communities to better coordinate use of the area for ceremonial and religious purposes. That includes a plan to strengthen protection of cultural resources found in the park through a designated trail system.

Agency staff recently met with the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps about opportunities for tribal work crews, youth and families to be incorporated in park programming and projects.

The Park Service said it also sought cultural awareness training for employees and guidance from the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.

New Mexico House Endorses Ban Of Demonstrations At Homes - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

A proposal to make it illegal to demonstrate at any specific private residence in New Mexico has been endorsed by the state House by a narrow margin.

The House voted 33-31 on Thursday to outlaw "residential targeted picketing" to protect people from harassment or being terrorized in their homes by demonstrators. The measure moves to the Senate for consideration. Earlier this week, the Idaho House of Representatives voted down similar legislation.

The New Mexico bill would make it a misdemeanor criminal offense to convey a public opinion or message outside a specific home "vocally or by standing or marching with a sign, banner, sound amplification device or other means."

The proposed restrictions provoked a whirlwind three-hour debate that pitted concerns about personal privacy and refuge in one's home against detractors who worried the bill would infringe on bedrock rights to free speech and assembly.

Rep. Jason Harper of Rio Rancho, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the initiative is inspired by the experience of one unnamed, retired couple in Rio Rancho who were targeted by demonstrators.

His pitch won the support of leading Democrats, including state Rep. Patricia Lundstrom of Gallup, chairwoman of the lead House budget-writing committee.

But many Democrats and Republicans said free-speech concerns should prevail or that the Legislature should defer to local community ordinances.

Republican Rep. Cathrynn Brown of Carlsbad said she worried about unintended consequences, noting that Halloween trick-or-treat visitors could easily fall within the definition of home picketers in the bill. 

GOP House Minority Leader James Townsend of Artesia made a similar point.

"I think that protecting a person's right to freely assemble isn't something I can vote to jeopardize," he said. "I thought about Christmas carolers. Somebody might protest that, but I might welcome that. Therein lies the problem."

GOP Rep. Stefani Lord of Sandia Park, a fixture at pro-gun rights demonstrations last year, asked whether the bill would prevent demonstrations outside the official governor's mansion in Santa Fe.

Harper said the bill was likely to put the mansion and its surroundings off limits to protesters unless a gathering of public officials was underway inside.

"We're not limiting this to one particular part of the citizenry. It is anyone who is being targeted at their residence," he said.

Navajo Nation To Allow 'Soft Reopening' Of Some Businesses - Associated Press

Navajo Nation officials cited a declining number of new COVID-19 cases and other improving conditions as they announced a new public health order that will allow some businesses to reopen under certain restrictions, including tribal casinos and churches.

The daily curfew for residents on the reservation that stretches into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah will remain under a separate health order. However, residents no longer will be required — but will be encouraged — to stay home. 

Both orders take effect Monday.

Officials cited testing availability, hospital capacity and contact tracing in addition to the decrease in new cases as factors in the transition to a status that will allow some businesses to reopen at 25% capacity. 

"This is not a full reopening as some states are doing," tribal President Jonathan Nez said Wednesday. "Instead, this is a carefully crafted soft reopening that includes specific guidelines to help reduce the spread of COVID-19."

Businesses that want to reopen will be required to submit a plan to the Navajo Nation Division of Economic Development. Marinas and parks can reopen by appointment only.

The tribe's three casinos in northwestern New Mexico and one east of Flagstaff can reopen, but only to tribal members and employees. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has spent more than $1.6 million on equipment, supplies and training to prepare for reopening the facilities that have been closed since last March, interim chief executive Brian Parrish said.

He said all employees will be tested for COVID-19, and the casino properties will be deep cleaned and sanitized.

Museums, flea markets, roadside stands, gyms and movie theaters still are closed.

The tribe reported eight additional COVID-19 cases and seven more deaths on Thursday. 

The latest numbers pushed the tribe's pandemic totals to 29,911 confirmed cases and 1,212 known deaths.

New Mexico State Senate Passes Hair Discrimination Bill - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico state Senate has passed a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on traditional hairstyles and head coverings. 

If signed into law, hair-based discrimination would be prohibited in the workplace and in schools. Advocates for the law say that currently, employers can pressure workers to chemically straighten natural hair or cut dreadlocks in order to conform to dress codes. 

The bill, known as the Crown Act, is part of a nationwide effort driven by Black civil rights advocates which has won support in other state legislatures. 

In New Mexico, the bill was also strongly supported by Native American residents who say they've been discriminated against for wearing native hairstyles. A high-profile assault of a Native American high school student, whose hair was cut by a teacher, figured prominently in the debate over the bill.

Religious leaders say it will further protect residents who wear head coverings, such as Sikh turbans, Jewish yarmulkes, and Muslim hijabs. 

Clean Fuel Standard Wins Approval By New Mexico Senate - Associated Press

New Mexico's state Senate has approved a bill to create a clean fuel standard that environmentalists and Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham say would move the state closer to reaching its carbon reduction goals. 

Endorsed on a 25-14 vote, the proposed legislation calls for a gradual reduction in the carbon intensity of transportation fuels and applies to companies that refine, blend or import transportation fuels. 

The bill from Democratic Sen. Mimi Stewart of Albuquerque now moves to the Democrat-led House for consideration. 

Stewart says the state has to reduce pollution linked to the transportation sector to meet its goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

If the bill becomes law, New Mexico would join California and Oregon in offering credits generated by emissions-reducing technology. Several other states are considering similar clean fuel legislation.

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