THURS: Health Secretary Pushes Vaccine Message To Congress, Cannabis Producer Fined, + More

Apr 15, 2021


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."

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.

Famed Laguna Pueblo Photographer Lee Howard Marmon DiesAlbuquerque 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 2Associated 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 MexicoAssociated 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.

Pot Producers Eager To Ramp Up, As Legalization Approaches - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Several medical marijuana providers on Wednesday warned of a potential cannabis shortage in late June, when the first provisions of a new law go into effect to legalize recreational marijuana in New Mexico.

Authorized recreational cannabis sales don't commence until early 2022. But several medical marijuana businesses, led by Ultra Health, say there could be a run on medical marijuana supplies in late June of this year when the new legalization law takes effect and increases purchase and possession limits, with virtually no restrictions on how much can be stashed away at home for personal use.

Ultra Health called for an increase in the current limits on marijuana production — set at 1,750 plants per producer — to ensure there is no extreme scarcity.

The Department of Health that oversees the medical cannabis program was in the process of reviewing the letter and could not comment. 

The Regulations and Licensing Department that will license recreational pot producers and oversee supply chains also was studying the letter. Agency Superintendent Linda Trujillo has said new limits on marijuana possession and home growing take effect June 29.

Ultra Health and CEO Duke Rodriguez have repeatedly challenged the state's plant-count limit on cultivation. Rodriguez says this time is different in light of the New Mexico Cannabis Regulation Act signed on Monday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

"We've gone from being at the back of the pack to the front of the class," Rodriguez said by phone. "We have, thankfully, some of the most generous purchase/possession limits in the entire country."

Ultra Health says it takes about four months to grow and harvest cannabis — and that the industry should be allowed to ramp up production now to avoid scarcity.

The new law puts the state on track to accept applications for some recreational-pot business licenses in September, with recreational marijuana sales commencing no later than April 1, 2022. 

Purchases and marijuana possession outside the home is capped at 2 ounces, enough to roll about 55 joints or cigarettes.

At a bill-signing ceremony on Monday, the governor highlighted the general need to scale up production for the new recreational cannabis market.

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.


Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-19 Deaths For 4th Day In Row - Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Wednesday reported 10 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the fourth consecutive day.

The latest numbers brought the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation to 30,279 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.

Tribal President Jonathan Nez recently announced the first confirmed case of the COVID-19 B.1.429 variant on the reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The variant was first identified in the state of California and has since been detected across the southwest U.S. 

New Mexico School District Wants 20,000 Youth Vaccinated - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Albuquerque Public Schools is ramping up its efforts to get vaccines to students.

Operations chief Gabriella Duran Blakey says 50 students were included in a vaccine clinic Wednesday as part of a partnership between the school district and city health workers.

Next week, the school district says it will aim the power of its mailing lists and social media at students to encourage them to register for the vaccines being offered in New Mexico.

As soon as next Wednesday, students could be eligible for vaccine clinics aimed specifically at them. Parents are required to attend in order to sign release forms.

Albuquerque Public Schools is one of the largest school districts in the country and covers more than one in five K-12 students in New Mexico.

The vaccination effort follows a push to get educators vaccinated last month. Blakey says around 15% of Albuquerque Public Schools staff declined the vaccines while 85% have received one.

"We didn't think we'd be at this point. We're really lucky in New Mexico that we have this opportunity to have vaccines for our community, including our youth," she said.

Eldorado High School was closed to in-person learning on Tuesday following four positive COVID-19 tests, the first to be ordered closed since April 6, when the vast majority of New Mexico's schools opened to in-person learning full-time.

Three more schools announced voluntary closures Wednesday, in Bloomfield and Socorro, after outbreaks that would have required widespread quarantines.

The end of the school year is fast approaching. Many students who attend in person this school year will only have been in the physical classroom for about a month.

A more COVID-19-immune student population could increase the viability of graduation celebrations, extended learning programs and summer school.

Blakey said that it's important for all community members to get vaccinated and build herd immunity. She said she hopes students will get themselves protection from the virus for whatever plans they have, from working a summer job to going off to college in the fall.

While some experts suggest that herd immunity is reached when around 70% of people have built up natural antibodies or been vaccinated, there is no universally accepted rate.

Groups Take Aim At New Mexico Drilling Plan Amid US Review - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Environmentalists and Native American activists say the Biden administration's review of the federal oil and gas leasing program should result in more protections for an area of northwestern New Mexico that's considered sacred.

The fight over drilling on federal land bordering Chaco Culture National Historical Park has spanned multiple presidencies, and an effort to update the area's management plan remains unfinished after years.

The activists held a virtual gathering Wednesday as the comment period is about to close on the administration's leasing review. The coalition said U.S. officials need to do more than just check boxes and instead engage in meaningful consultation with tribes and other groups.

They warn increased oil and gas development has the potential to destroy parts of the landscape outside the park that could provide a better understanding of the ancient civilization that once inhabited the region.

They also cited concerns about air pollution from venting and flaring at natural gas collection and processing sites, wastewater leaks and unchecked development in southeastern New Mexico.

During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the first time joined federal land managers in planning how to manage resources. And following a visit by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during the Trump administration, oil and gas leasing within a certain distance of the park was put on hold.

Legislation pending in Congress would formalize the buffer zone around the park, but even some tribes have disagreed over how big it should be.

Much of the land surrounding the park belongs to the Navajo Nation or is owned by individual Navajos. While the legislation would not affect tribal lands, some are concerned they would be landlocked and lose out on leasing revenue and royalties.

Meanwhile, leaders with New Mexico's pueblo communities say the region provides a spiritual connection to their ancestors. They have been pushing for a drilling moratorium and have expressed more optimism in recent weeks with Deb Haaland — a member of Laguna Pueblo — becoming the first Native American to lead the U.S. Interior Department.

There has been no indication of whether the agency intends to reconsider previous recommendations regarding the area's management plan or if Haaland would consider other actions related to the buffer zone around the park.

Julia Bernal, director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, said the tribal perspective should be included in the planning process because "the Indigenous nations in New Mexico have a large stake in how our water and land is managed."

Members of the coalition also called out New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration and the Democratic-led Legislature, saying elected leaders across the state have benefited from campaign donations made by the oil and gas industry. They also criticized Lujan Grisham for seeking to offset any economic losses from Biden's directives.

Red States On U.S. Electoral Map Lagging On Vaccinations - By Russ Bynum, Associated Press

A look at which U.S. states are leading at vaccinating against the coronavirus and which states are struggling is beginning to resemble America's electoral map.

Vaccination numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show states that tend to vote Democratic at the top in terms of the percentage of their adult population that have received at least one shot.

Out in front is New Hampshire, where 65% of the population age 18 and older has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Following close behind are New Mexico, Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts at 55% or greater.

At the bottom are five Republican-leaning states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in late March found that Republicans were three times as likely as Democrats to say they will probably or definitely not get vaccinated.

The CDC reports that nearly 121 million American adults — or 47% of the U.S. adult population — have received at least one coronavirus shot. California, the nation's largest blue state, is slightly ahead of that pace, at 50%. The biggest red state, Texas, lags at less than 44%.

How swiftly states are vaccinating doesn't always correlate with how they vote.

Deeply red South Dakota ranks among the most successful states, with 54% of its population getting injections. Among blue states, Nevada lags furthest behind the U.S. at less than 44%, followed by Oregon and Michigan at 45% each.

New Hampshire, which leads the nation in adult vaccinations, has a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled Legislature. However, Democrats hold all of its seats in Congress and the state has consistently Democratic in every presidential election since 2008.