THURS: NM Sets New Daily Record In COVID Deaths, Inmates Sue Over Lack Of Virus Protection, + More

Dec 17, 2020

New Mexico Sees New Daily Record In COVID-Related DeathsAssociated Press

New Mexico had a record-setting 48 daily deaths linked to the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, as the state delivers economic relief payments to the unemployed and small businesses.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news conference that she is concerned that daily deaths could grow even higher over the year-end holidays. The total number of deaths related to COVID-19 is now 2,097.

State health officials confirmed that the state has received and distributed 17,550 vaccine doses since the federal approval of a vaccine from drugmaker Pfizer and German pharmaceutical company BioNTech.

The vast majority of those doses are going to health workers. The state expects to receive a new shipment of Pfizer vaccines next week.

Lujan Grisham provided an update on the $320 million economic relief package approved in late November by the governor and lawmakers.

Direct payments of $1,200 have gone out to 120,000 people as a supplement to unemployment insurance.

Vaccines Reach COVID-Ravaged Indigenous Communities - By Morgan Lee And Carla K. Johnson, Associated Press

The first doses of the coronavirus vaccine are arriving at Native American communities that have been disproportionately sickened and killed by the pandemic.

The communities around the U.S. have been hit hard despite curfews, roadblocks and the suspension of business including casinos and artisanal trading posts.

Vaccinations began Tuesday for health workers at clinics across the Navajo and Hopi nations in parts of Arizona and New Mexico, where 3,900 doses are being delivered to clinics.

COVID-19 has roamed relentlessly among the Navajo Nation's multi-generational rural households. Navajo health officials have confirmed 20,000 coronavirus cases across the reservation and at least 727 deaths since the pandemic began.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a statement called the vaccination delivery effort "a blessing for all of our people, including the doctors, nurses, and many other health care warriors."

Three Indigenous pueblos in New Mexico with populations as small 250 are getting doses of the vaccine through trusted relationships with state health officials.

At Acoma Pueblo, the first round of shots Wednesday went to health care personnel, the elderly and workers on the front lines of food distribution and mental health visits to tribal members living in self-imposed isolation to protect against infection.

The pueblo has funneled millions of dollars in federal relief toward its lockdown strategy for enduring the COVID-19 pandemic — closing its casino, installing 24-hour road blocks and stepping up food deliveries and virus contact tracing among homebound residents.

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said there have been 16 virus-related deaths at the pueblo of about 3,000 residents.

Vallo said Acoma Pueblo leaders doubted the local health care unit overseen by Indian Health Service would have enough medical personnel to administer the vaccine because of a recent reorganization that reduced local health services.

Inmates Sue New Mexico Prison Over Lack Of Virus SafeguardsAssociated Press

More than 50 inmates have sued the Penitentiary of New Mexico claiming the facility near Santa Fe did not protect its inmates from the coronavirus.

The New Mexico Supreme Court was asked to intervene after 56 inmates submitted a handwritten petition alleging safety regulations intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19 were too lax and caused an outbreak in late October.

The lawsuit said prison officials did not conduct enough tests, did not separate inmates from those possibly infected and continued to have crews work outside in violation of state prison guidelines.

The New Mexico Corrections Department had no immediate comment.

The lawsuit asks that the state corrections secretary enforce coronavirus guidelines, reform internal prison practices, provide proper medical care and release eligible inmates to community detention centers to reduce overcrowding. The lawsuit also requests monetary damages.

Christopher Martinez, an inmate who wrote the petition, said in the lawsuit that an outside employee who showed COVID-19 symptoms was repeatedly allowed into a prison kitchen Oct. 23 despite being continuously asked to leave.

Martinez said eight people tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after and more than 45 inmates tested positive by early November. The facility had 141 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began in March, the lawsuit said.

Biden To Pick Rep. Haaland As Interior Secretary - By Ellen Knickmeyer, Associated Press

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland as interior secretary.

That's according to two people familiar with the selection who weren't authorized to discuss it publicly and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity Thursday.

The historic pick would make her the first Native American to lead the powerful federal agency that has wielded influence over the nation's tribes for generations.

If confirmed by the Senate, the first-term congresswoman would also be the first Native American member appointed to a president’s Cabinet.

Tribal leaders and activists around the country, along with many Democratic figures, have urged Biden for weeks to choose Haaland.

Haaland, 60, is a member of the Laguna Pueblo and, as she likes to say, a 35th-generation resident of New Mexico. The role as interior secretary would put her in charge of an agency that not only has tremendous sway over the nearly 600 federally recognized tribes but also over much of the nation's vast public lands, waterways, wildlife, national parks and mineral wealth.

The pick breaks a 245-year record of non-Native officials, mostly male, serving as the top federal official over American Indian affairs. The federal government often worked to dispossess Native Americans of their land and, until recently, to assimilate them into white culture.

Haaland previously worked as head of New Mexico's Democratic Party, as tribal administrator and as an administrator for an organization providing services for adults with developmental disabilities.

Born to a Marine veteran father and a Navy veteran mother, Haaland describes herself as a single mother who sometimes had to rely on food stamps. She says she is still paying off student loans after college and law school for herself and college for her daughter.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall, who is retiring after 22 years in Congress and was initially considered the front-runner for interior secretary, congratulated Haaland on her selection, calling it "momentous and well-earned.''

Dozens Of States File Anti-Trust Lawsuit Against Google - By Colleen Slevin And Michael Liedtke Associated Press

Dozens of states including New Mexico filed an anti-trust lawsuit against Google on Thursday, alleging that the search giant has an illegal monopoly over the online search market that hurts consumers and advertisers.

It's the third antitrust salvo to slam Google during the past two months as the Department of Justice and attorneys general from across the U.S. weigh in with how they believe the company is abusing its immense power.  

The case echoes claims made in a lawsuit brought by the Justice Department but also seeks to stop Google from becoming dominant in emerging technology like voice assistant devices and connected cars.

Google says it's prepared to answer questions about its operations.

Damage From Border Wall: Blown-Up Mountains, Toppled Cactus - By Anita Snow, Associated Press

Government contractors are igniting dynamite blasts in the remote and rugged southeast corner of Arizona, forever reshaping the landscape as they pulverize mountaintops.

Trump has expedited border wall construction in his last year, mostly in wildlife refuges and Indigenous territory the government owns in Arizona and New Mexico, avoiding the legal fights over private land in busier crossing areas of Texas.

The work has caused environmental damage, preventing animals from moving freely and scarring unique mountain and desert landscapes that conservationists fear could be irreversible.

Recent construction has sealed off the last major undammed river in the Southwest. It's more difficult for desert tortoises, the occasional ocelot and the world's tiniest owls to cross the boundary.

The Trump administration says it's protecting national security, citing it to waive environmental laws.

Navajo Nation Reports 287 New COVID-19 Cases, 1 More DeathAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Thursday reported 287 new COVID-19 cases and one new related death.

In all, the tribe now has reported 20,395 coronavirus cases resulting in 732 deaths since the pandemic began.

Health officials said more than 186,000 people on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have been tested and nearly 11,000 have recovered from COVID-19.

Navajo Department of Health officials said 77 communities on the reservation still have uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus.

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

The Navajo Nation remains in a three-week lockdown that requires all residents to remain home at all times with the exception of essential workers that are required to report to work, cases of emergencies, and to obtain essential items such as food, water and medicine.

On Thursday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer distributed food packages at Birdsprings Chapter and Indian Wells Chapter.

US Wildlife Agency Gives More Deference To Economic Benefits - Associated Press

U.S. wildlife officials have finalized a rule to exempt some areas from habitat protections meant to save imperiled species.

Thursday's announcement by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would place greater weight on the economic benefits of development when deciding if land or water should be protected. It's the latest move by the Trump administration in a years-long overhaul of how the Endangered Species Act is used.

Wildlife advocates say it would allow more drilling, mining and other activities in areas crucial to the survival of dwindling populations of plants and animals.

Wildlife advocates said animals that could be affected by the latest changes include the struggling lesser prairie chicken, a grasslands bird found in five states in the south-central U.S., and the rare dunes sagebrush lizard that lives among the oil fields of western Texas and eastern New Mexico.


New Mexico Allows More People In Businesses In Cold WeatherAssociated Press

New Mexico officials are amending the state's public health order on the coronavirus to allow more people inside grocery stores and other essential businesses.

The governor's office made the announcement Wednesday, citing the recent frigid temperatures as a reason for the slight increase in capacity levels.

Waiting lines have been forming outside grocery stores and other retailers since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered capacity to be limited at establishments around the state as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19.

She has said the tough measures have helped to reduce new infections. However, deaths and hospitalizations related to the pandemic remain high.

Officials on Wednesday reported 1,816 new cases and 43 additional deaths. More than 2,000 New Mexicans have died since the pandemic began.

Still in effect is the state's color-coded system for classifying counties based on the rate of spread and setting benchmarks they must meet in order to begin easing restrictions. All 33 counties are in the red high-risk category.

Under the change, grocery stores and other essential retailers will be allowed to operate at 25% of maximum occupancy if they are in the red zone. Previously, essential retail spaces could operate with either a limit on maximum occupancy or a specific number of customers at one time, whichever was smaller.

Capacity will incrementally increase as counties move up to yellow and green tiers. But some municipal leaders have acknowledged it could be months before more populated areas such as Albuquerque and Las Cruces see improvements.

Navajo Nation Reports Another 160 COVID Cases Plus 4 Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Wednesday reported 160 new COVID-19 cases for the second consecutive day plus four more related deaths. 

In all, the tribe now has reported 20,095 coronavirus cases resulting in 731 deaths since the pandemic began. 

Health officials say more than 186,000 people on the reservation have been tested and nearly 11,000 have recovered from COVID-19. 

Navajo Department of Health officials say 77 communities on the reservation still have uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus. 

The Navajo Nation has extended its stay-at-home order though Dec. 28 in an attempt to stop the spread of the virus.

On Thursday, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer are scheduled to distribute food packages at Birdsprings Chapter and Indian Wells Chapter.

New Mexicans Begin Receiving State Stimulus BenefitsAssociated Press

Thousands of residents in New Mexico who are collecting unemployment benefits have begun receiving an extra $1,200 state stimulus in their payments.

The payments are being made to about 130,000 people who qualified for benefits in late November and early December and to people who exhausted their benefits between Sept. 12 and Nov. 5.

About 12,000 payments were distributed Monday via paper checks, direct deposits or debit cards. More disbursements are scheduled Dec. 22 and Dec. 28.

The additional payments are part of the $330 million economic relief package passed Nov. 24 by the state Legislature to help residents and small-business owners who have struggled during the pandemic.  

Officials Hope Vaccine Is Turning Point In Fighting Virus Associated Press

Total confirmed COVID-19 infections in New Mexico since the pandemic began have topped 122,550 and officials this week expressed hope that the first shipments of vaccinations to hospitals around the state marks the beginning of a turning point.

Frontline health care workers are the first in line to be vaccinated, followed by staff and residents at long-term care facilities. Plans have yet to be made for which groups of people will come next.

State officials confirmed that of the 18 shipments sent to New Mexico hospitals on Tuesday, one shipment of 75 doses had to be discarded after a digital device showed it overheated while being transported to a hospital in Clayton.

Officials said the problem could have been a malfunction of the device used to track the temperature rather than faulty packaging.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the state's allocation planning takes into account such developments and the frontline workers in Clayton will still be able to get their first doses.

Largest Wind Farm In New Mexico To Begin Generating Power - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Xcel Energy says work is done on the Sagamore Wind Project, and the turbines will go online at the end of the month near the New Mexico-Texas border.

Covering 100,000 acres, the wind farm is the largest in New Mexico and the second largest on the utility's eight-state system.

CEO and chairman Ben Fowke said during a virtual celebration that Sagamore will be a key asset for Xcel in its push to reach carbon-free electricity generation by 2050.

Xcel officials said the new wind farm will result in lower costs for customers and will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in lease payments and tax revenues over the next 25 years.

Utility officials said Sagamore caps a three-year effort to boost regional wind generating capacity by 1,250 megawatts.

While it doesn't have any immediate plans, Xcel hinted that it's next foray into renewable energy will likely involve solar. Company officials described New Mexico as ripe for large-scale photovoltaic development.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said aside from the economic benefits, Sagamore represents another step as the state looks to shift electricity generation from coal and natural gas to wind, solar and battery storage over the coming decades. A landmark energy law calls for utilities to be carbon-free by 2045.