FRI: Workforce Solutions Secretary Steps Down, State Surpasses 4,000 COVID-19 Deaths, + More

Apr 16, 2021

  

New Mexico Labor Leader Steps Down As Jobless Claims Persist - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The head of New Mexico's labor agency says he's stepping down. Bill McCamley's last day as secretary of the Department of Workforce Solutions is Friday.

McCamley told employees this week that he's proud of their work and that their efforts amid the pandemic have been "nothing short of heroic."

The agency has been grappling over the past year with record jobless claims resulting from the pandemic's economic tolls.

McCamley did not immediately respond to messages seeking comment about his departure. A former state lawmaker from Las Cruces, McCamley had focused on curbing wage theft and boosting workforce training initiatives.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office said Ricky Serna, who previously served as deputy secretary at the Department of Workforce Solutions, will serve as acting secretary pending the search for a full-time replacement.

New Mexico has paid out more than $3.5 billion to displaced workers over the past year. Its unemployment fund was drained by September due to the high number of jobless claims, forcing the state to borrow around $234 million from the federal government so it could continue funding various unemployment programs.

State officials hope to use federal funding from the latest pandemic relief package to replenish the fund, but McCamley recently said that officials were waiting on guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department on how the funds can be used.

More than 100,000 New Mexicans currently are receiving weekly jobless benefits. Since last June, there have been between 2,000 and 5,000 weekly initial claims for jobless benefits, taxing a system designed for fewer than 1,000.

On Friday, the latest report issued by the agency put New Mexico's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for March at 8.3%. That's unchanged from February but up from 5.4% in the previous year. The national unemployment rate in March was 6%.

While all sectors have been hit, leisure and hospitality continued to report the heaviest employment losses in New Mexico, with a drop of 18,400 jobs — or nearly 19% — compared to the previous year. Mining, construction, education and health services also were down thousands of jobs compared to last year.

'Secret Prom' Puts New Mexico School Back On Remote LearningLas Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

A high school in New Mexico returned to remote learning on Friday as the school district investigates an off-campus "secret prom."

Officials said the event in Las Cruces violated state mandates intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

A school district statement  says a complaint submitted to the governor's office said hundreds of Mayfield High School students may have attended the unsanctioned prom held April 10.

A school district spokeswoman told the Las Cruces Sun-News that students who attended could face repercussions ranging from academic suspensions to being barred from attending school events such as graduation.

The district said Mayfield would be on remote learning through April 26.

Josh Ziehl of Owl Cartel Event Productions told the Sun-News that he was hired as DJ for the event. He estimated that between 100 and 150 students attended.

Attendees wore masks but many did not keep them on the whole time, said Ziehl, who said he wore his throughout.

Approximately 20 adults supervised the event, "trying to keep … social distancing as best as they could," he said.

The Sun-News reported that it was unable to confirm the location.

New Mexico's public health emergency guidelines restrict large gatherings. In Doña Ana County, which includes Las Cruces, the limit is 10 people.

New Mexico COVID-19 Cases Tick Up As Death Toll Tops 4KAssociated Press

The number of new COVID-19 cases is ticking up again in New Mexico as the death toll reached another milestone Friday.

State health officials reported that four more people have succumbed to the virus, pushing the total to 4,001 since the pandemic began last year.

"Today's sad milestone reminds us of what we have been through as a state and as a country. This is not just another number — they are our neighbors, our fellow New Mexicans," said Dr. Tracie Collins, head of the New Mexico Department of Health.

While the death rate has declined dramatically since peaking in December, Collins continued her push for people to adhere to the state's public health order and to get vaccinated, saying doing so will lessen the chances of severe illness or death. She also said the latest figures underscore the need for caution in the weeks and months ahead.

With 1,550 cases being confirmed over the past week, the seven-day average for new daily cases remains above the state's target.

"While New Mexico is leading the nation in vaccinations and staying vigilant with COVID-safe practices, we are not out of the woods. There is still much work still to be done," Collins said.

As for vaccinations, state data shows more than 37% of residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated.

'Godzilla' Shark Discovered In New Mexico Gets Formal Name - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Paleontologists say they have given a more formal name to the ancient shark fossil dubbed "Godzilla Shark" after it was discovered in New Mexico in 2013.

Researchers say in a recently published paper the Hoffman's Dragon Shark was a distinct species that prowled the shores of eastern New Mexico 300 million years ago when much of North America was covered by a sea.

Discoverer John-Paul Hodnett says the name of the newly identified species honors the Hoffman family, which granted him and other paleontologists permission to dig on their land in the Manzano Mountains east of Albuquerque.

This week, Hodnett and a slew of other researchers published their findings in a bulletin of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science identifying the shark as a separate species.

The name also harkens to the dragon-like jawline and 2.5-foot fin spines that inspired the discovery's initial nickname, "Godzilla Shark."

The formal naming announcement followed seven years of excavation, preservation and study.

The 12 rows of teeth on the shark's lower jaw, for example, were still obscured by layers of sediment after excavation. Hodnett only saw them by using an angled light technique that illuminates objects below.

Hodnett is now the paleontologist and program coordinator for the Maryland-National Capital Parks and Planning Commission's Dinosaur Park in Laurel, Maryland. His fellow researchers come from the New Mexico museum, as well as St. Joseph's University in Pennsylvania, Northern Arizona University, and Idaho State University.

The recovered fossil skeleton is considered the most complete of its evolutionary branch —ctenacanth — that split from modern sharks and rays around 390 million years ago and went extinct around 60 million years later.

Back then, eastern New Mexico was covered by a seaway that extended deep into North America. Hodnett and his colleagues believe that Hoffman's dragon shark most likely lived in the shallows along the coast, stalking prey like crustaceans, fish and other sharks.

New Mexico's high desert plateaus have also yielded many dinosaur fossils, including various species of tyrannosaurus that roamed the land millions of years ago when it was a tropical rain forest.

Pandemic Fuels Business And Politics For GOP Nominee - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The Republican nominee for a vacant congressional seat in New Mexico is bringing an unusual perspective to the national discourse over pandemic restrictions and federal relief.

Mark Moores is a state senator from Albuquerque and the co-owner with his wife of a Roswell-based medical testing business that has been on the front lines tracing the spread of the coronavirus.

The business received nearly $850,000 in federal aid to avoid layoffs. Moores is criticizing the state's gradual approach to reopening the economy and says that businesses don't want handouts.

He said it is still unclear whether Pathology Consultants will repay the federal loan. Those loans can be forgiven when spending is focused primarily on payroll, while including a variety of expenses linked to the pandemic.

As the pandemic took hold, Pathology Consultants operated one of a handful of high-volume testing machines used to analyze nasal swab samples and detect the genetic material of the COVID-19 virus.

"I bring a strong, unique perspective on that, having been on the front lines of the battle," said Moores, who recalled donning protective equipment to help technicians at drive-thru coronavirus test sites. "We did rapid response (coronavirus testing) at nursery schools, universities. We did a number of businesses around the state."

COVID-19 test results have been used by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration to track the virus amid aggressive emergency health orders that limit business activity, and to shut down businesses with repeated infections.

Documents obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show that the governor's office scrambled to obtain precursor chemicals for Pathology Consultants to continue virus testing in May 2020.

Moores now says those efforts to restrict business activity have gone too far, as he competes with five other candidates for a vacant, Albuquerque-based congressional seat in a June 1 special election. He favors an immediate reopening of the economy in a state that is leading nearly all others in the deployment of vaccines.

New Mexico still requires face masks in public and limits crowding in businesses and indoor spaces, based on each county's virus infections and test positivity rate.

"As the pandemic wore on we saw that it was time to open up and allow businesses to open safely," Moores said. "These businesses wanted to open, they wanted to get back to work. .... People did not want handouts and they just wanted to get back out and running."

The 50-year-old legislator and former college football lineman backed a failed bill this year to limit the governor's authority to prolong pandemic health emergencies. He has combined a conservative voting record on social issues such as abortion with support for major business recovery initiatives by the state that provide minimal-interest loans and $300 million in grants to wounded businesses.

Moores confirmed that Pathology Consultants accepted $847,900 in forgivable loans through the federal government's Paycheck Protection Program.

He described the federal aid as a financial bridge that helped his 70-year-old business avoid layoffs and continue to track the virus. Orders for diagnostic medical testing dried up at the outset of the pandemic as New Mexico officials suspended nonessential medical procedures.

"We were shut down — about an 80% reduction in business between hospitals and medical offices," Moores said.

A rival candidate for the 1st Congressional District seat condemned Moores for potentially profiting from COVID testing and receiving federal pandemic assistance.

"This is just more of the partisan hypocrisy that we have come to expect," Aubrey Dunn Jr., a former state land commissioner and an independent candidate for the congressional seat, wrote in an email.

Moores says he and his company "saved lives during the middle of the pandemic and trying to politicize that is the lowest kind of politics."

Deb Haaland left Congress to serve as secretary of the Interior Department, prompting the special election for a seat that has been held by Democrats since 2009. State Democratic Party leaders nominated state Rep. Melanie Stansbury to run for the seat. Absentee balloting begins May 4.

US Water Managers Warn Of Dismal Year Along The Rio Grande - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Federal water managers have released their annual operating plan for the Rio Grande, and it doesn't look good.

Flows have been meager so far this year because of below-average snowpack and precipitation.

The Rio Grande is one of North America's longest rivers and a major water source for millions people and thousands of square miles of farmland in New Mexico, Texas and Mexico.

The Bureau of Reclamation warned Thursday that a stellar monsoon season would be the only saving grace, but the odds of that happening are slim.

That means there will be less water for farmers this growing season, and the river could possibly go dry through Albuquerque.

Reservoirs are at a fraction of their capacity and continue to shrink. There is no opportunity to replenish them because the provisions of a water-sharing agreement with Texas prevent New Mexico from storing water upstream. That means the drought-stricken state has no extra water in the bank to fall back on, as it has in previous years.

Matters are further complicated because of extremely low soil moisture levels. That, along with warm temperatures, means much of the melting snow will be absorbed or evaporate before it reaches the river.

"Just low dismal numbers all around," Ed Kandl, a hydrologist with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation said during a virtual meeting that included representatives from municipalities, tribal governments, irrigation districts, state agencies and a rafting company.

The Pecos River that delivers water to parts of eastern New Mexico and West Texas is in a similar situation, and federal officials recently issued a report indicating releases on the Colorado River — which feeds several western states — will continue to be limited because of the lack of water flowing into Lake Powell.

So aside from residents in Albuquerque seeing sandbars take over the Rio Grande, farmers in central and southern New Mexico will have a shorter growing season with less water for crops.

It also means less water for the endangered Rio Grande silvery minnow. Plans already are being made for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to rescue fish from drying portions of the river. The rescue missions have become a regular practice in recent years.

Near the small agricultural community of San Acacia, officials predicted that river drying would start in June and likely last through November, barring any relief from summer rains.

Last year also was tough, but officials said 2021 will likely mark one of the worst since the 1950s. They said the state's largest reservoir — Elephant Butte in southern New Mexico — could drop to just 3% of capacity.

Carolyn Donnelly, the bureau's water operations supervisor for the area, said contractors will be monitoring the river for drying as far north as Albuquerque, and managers will try to stretch what little water they have as far as it can go.

New Mexico Health Secretary, Experts Push Vaccine Message - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins says the state has tapped into a network of community health providers, faith leaders and other local organizers to share information as officials look to boost the number of people who are vaccinated.

Collins testified Thursday before a congressional subcommittee on the challenges of combating misinformation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic and the vaccination campaign.

She said New Mexico has been a leader in distribution. She said the early adoption of a registration site, regular news conferences by top state officials and town halls and social media messaging in multiple languages have resulted in the state's high vaccination rates.

"It's huge that we don't send the message that you don't matter, that in fact you do very much matter and that's why we're not going to rely on one mode of communication," Collins told members of a Senate subcommittee on communications and media.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, the New Mexico Democrat who chairs the panel, said while more than 120 million Americans have received at least a first shot, he was concerned that misinformation being shared on social media, by some commentators and through word of mouth has been keeping people from signing up to get a shot.

He cited a recent survey in which more than 3 million Americans weren't sure they would get the vaccine due to cost concerns.

"Let me be clear: The vaccine is provided at no cost. It is free," Luján said. "We must do better. A clear and consistent message will save lives."

As part of the pandemic relief package approved in December, Congress included funding to educate the public about the vaccination effort. Since then, Luján said hesitancy rates have fallen but it hasn't been enough.

Gordon Smith, president and CEO of the National Association of Broadcasters, testified that local radio and television stations across the country have donated hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of airtime to share information with the public about the pandemic and vaccines. He said broadcasters have one of the most expansive platforms for reaching more than 90% of American households, including those in rural areas.

Yonaira Rivera, an assistant professor of communication at Rutgers University, acknowledged the challenges of reaching communities of color and said the dissemination of misinformation makes that effort even more difficult. She recommended leveraging the infrastructure that already exists among community groups and trusted local leaders to share culturally tailored information.

"We must also remember that issues related to vaccine hesitancy are not all due to misinformation and issues related to vaccine uptake are not all due to hesitancy," she said. "This is why working with and listening to leaders and grassroots organizations can facilitate communication efforts."

The vaccination push comes as some states see upticks in new COVID-19 cases and the emergence of more variants.

"It is still important to get the vaccine because it can stop the replication of COVID and therefore stop the mutation and reduce the chances for more mutations," Collins said. "So it's really making sure we work with the communities to get that messaging out there and we do it often and consistently."

Famed Laguna Pueblo Photographer Lee Howard Marmon Dies Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Lee Howard Marmon, a self-taught photographer from Laguna Pueblo whose photographs are in galleries and museums around the world, has died at age 95.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Thursday that Marmon died March 31 of natural causes at a veterans home in Albuquerque. The newspaper says a private funeral has already been held and Marmon was buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Marmon's images of Native Americans, many taken on the Laguna reservation, helped to chronicle life in the community where he grew up. Among Marmon's numerous honors is a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwest Association of Indian Arts.

The Journal said Marmon got his first camera from his parents' trading post on Laguna Pueblo.

He began snapping pictures along Route 66 near Laguna, including images of vehicle crashes that he sold to insurance companies and local newspapers, according to his daughter Gigi Pilcher, who lives in Alaska.

Marmon's most iconic image, the 1954 "White Man's Moccasins," pictures tribal elder Jeff Sousea, caretaker of the Laguna mission. He's sitting outside the church wearing a traditional headband and beads, and a pair of well-worn high-top basketball sneakers.

Among Marmon's numerous honors is a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Southwest Association of Indian Arts.

Chris Marmon, who now lives in California, called his father "very humanistic and kind" and his photos reflected that.

Marijuana Producer Fined $142K After Santa Fe Fire Injures 2 Associated Press

A medical marijuana producer in New Mexico has been fined $142,000 for worker safety violations related to a fire at a Santa Fe facility last October that seriously injured two employees.

The New Mexico Environment Department fined New MexiCann Natural Medicine on Wednesday citing six violations, including failures to implement a respirator program, controls for flammable vapors and ignition sources, and handling of hazardous chemicals.

The company was fined as the state Department of Health seeks to revoke its license to produce medical cannabis. The department has not yet made a decision on the license.

The fire started after two employees were in the midst of a cannabis extraction process, authorities said. One of the employees spilled a mixture of ethanol and cannabis oil onto a heater plate, causing the fire. New MexiCann, which has been licensed since 2009, closed its main facility in Santa Fe where the fire occurred.

"The indifference shown to worker safety by this company is inexcusable," Environment Secretary James Kenney said. "Willful violations of worker safety requirements must have consequences for employers — every employee deserves to come home from work healthy."

Company owner Carlos Gonzales, 56, was charged in February with two felony counts of arson. He is accused of switching out a hot plate that caused the fire with one that goes against manufacturing standards.

Josh Alderete, who suffered burns on 37% of his body, was asked to take over the extraction process in the absence of a co-worker and warned Gonzales about changing the hot plates. He also said the plate was set at the highest setting — 500 degrees Fahrenheit — against manufacturing standards.

Josh Martinez, who spent several weeks recovering in the University of Colorado Medical Center burn unit, told investigators he was asked to assist in the process despite lacking the proper training.

New MexiCann has 15 business days from the date of the citations to pay the penalties or contest them before the state Occupational Health and Safety Review Commission.

It is the second fire-related incident at the facility after an explosion occurred there in 2015 that also injured two employees. The company was fined $13,500 in that case.

Gonzales and company attorney John Day declined to comment.

New Mexico Settles Retaliation Lawsuit By Whistleblower - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The state of New Mexico has reached a $260,000 settlement with a whistleblower who alleged retaliation by state insurance regulators after she reported that a major health care insurer was allegedly avoiding tax payments.

An attorney for Shawna Maestas confirmed the financial settlement Wednesday after terms were published on a state clearinghouse website.

Maestas previously oversaw the state's financial audit bureau. Two of her former colleagues at the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance are still pursuing the state for a 20% share of a roughly $18 million settlement with Presbyterian Health Plan for alleged underpayments on insurance premiums.

That case before the state Court of Appeals hinges on provisions of the Fraud Against Taxpayers Act that can provide whistleblowers who report wrongdoing between 15% and 25% of funds recovered by state prosecutors — an incentive designed by legislators to root out fraud.

Kate Ferlic, an attorney for Maestas and co-plaintiffs, said the outcome has implications for other public employees who witness corruption.

When "the Office of the Superintendent of Insurance refuses to make good on an agreement with the state, it really does have a chilling effect on other folks coming forward with valuable information that leads to the recovery of money for taxpayers," she said.

State Insurance Superintendent Russell Toal said that payment of about $1 million already was provided to the three whistleblowers for bringing insurance underpayments to light.

"Our view — which includes me — is they are not owed the money and the court ruled ... in the state's favor," he said of the additional payment sought on appeal.

Maestas says she first brought concerns about the alleged tax underpayments in 2015 to then-superintendent of insurance John Franchini and eventually to the attorney general's office.

She claimed in her retaliation lawsuit that insurance regulators "overtly and covertly" attempted to stop her from exposing tax fraud and created a hostile work environment by assigning her menial tasks and an overwhelming workload.

Presbyterian Health Plan agreed in 2017 to pay a $18.5 million to resolve claims of unpaid premium taxes that dated back more than a decade. Presbyterian did not acknowledge wrongdoing and fraud charges were dismissed.

The events stoked concern that state insurance regulators favored the industry over public interests.

Reforms approved by the Legislature in 2018 and 2019 transferred oversight of insurance premium tax collections and enforcement provisions to the Taxation and Revenue Department, starting in 2020.

Production Of 'Outer Range' TV Series Underway In New Mexico Associated Press

The New Mexico Film Office has announced that a television series starring Josh Brolin and now in production will employ up to 300 crew members and 2,000 people as extras and background actors.

The office said "Outer Range" is produced by Amazon Studios and Plan B Entertainment and is shooting in Albuquerque, and Las Vegas.

In the production, Brolin plays a rancher who the film office says "discovers an unfathomable mystery at the edge of Wyoming's wilderness" while fighting for his ranch and family.

Office Director Amber Dodson said it's exciting that the series will feature many of New Mexico's diverse landscapes.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-19 Deaths For 5th Day In Row Associated Press

The Navajo Nation has reported 20 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the fifth consecutive day.

The latest numbers released Thursday brought the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation to 30,338 cases and 1,262 known deaths.

Tribal officials had ordered a lockdown last weekend over fears that a new variant could drive another deadly surge.

The Stay-At-Home order required all Navajo Nation residents to refrain from unnecessary travel to help limit the spread of the virus, including a new and more contagious strain.  

So far, nearly 16,500 people on the Navajo Nation have recovered from COVID-19.

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