TUES: New Mexico Pauses Use Of J&J Vaccine, State Releases Plan For Healthy Forests, + More

Apr 13, 2021

New Mexico Pauses Administration Of J&J VaccineAssociated Press

New Mexico will pause administration of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in response to a federal recommendation stemming from reports of potentially dangerous blood clots, the state Department of Health announced Tuesday.

"New Mexico — like the federal government — is acting out of an abundance of caution," Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said in a statement. "As we learn more, we will share that information."

In a joint statement earlier Tuesday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said they were investigating unusual clots that occurred several days after vaccination. The clots occurred in veins that drain blood from the brain and occurred together with low platelets. The six cases involved women between the ages of 18 and 48; there was one death.

More than 6.8 million doses of the J&J vaccine have been administered in the U.S.

In New Mexico, just over 3% of this week's allocation of vaccine doses included J&J. State health officials said that overall, less than 39,000 J&J doses have been administered in New Mexico.

New Mexico health officials said scheduled J&J vaccinations will be paused or changed to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The Health Department had partnered with Santa Fe County to host a vaccine clinic Wednesday in the town of Edgewood using J&J vaccines. Officials had to scramble Tuesday to replace those vaccines with doses from Moderna. About 500 people were expected to get shots at the clinic.

People who have received the J&J vaccine who develop severe headache, blurred vision, seizure, abdominal pain, leg pain or shortness of breath within three weeks after vaccination should contact their health care provider, the department said.

New Mexico continues to lead the U.S. in vaccine distribution, with close to 35% of residents 16 and older having been fully vaccinated. State data shows more than 52% have received at least one shot.

Energy, Voting Rights Loom In Congressional Special Election - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Republican congressional nominee and New Mexico state Sen. Mark Moores is staking out a campaign platform based on support for the oil and natural gas industry, robust police funding and taxation issues, ahead of a rapid-fire special election.

The state Republican Party sees the election as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to recapture an Albuquerque-based congressional seat controlled by Democrats including Deb Haaland before her confirmation as secretary of the Interior Department.

Early voting begins May 4 ahead of the June 1 election. Democratic nominee and state Rep. Melanie Stansbury says she is firmly focused on responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuilding the state economy, including modernizing the energy sector.

Former Republican Aubrey Dunn Jr. also is mounting an independent candidacy, building on a family dynasty in politics and a four-year term as state land commissioner, overseeing petroleum leases on state trust land.

It's unclear when candidates might converge for a public debate.

Records Show New Mexico Governor Settles Harassment Allegation - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New campaign finance filings show that New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s political committee has paid $62,500 to settle allegations by a former campaign employee that he was sexually harassed by the governor.

Lujan Grisham's re-election campaign spokesman Jared Leopold today confirmed the settlement involving payments to a law firm representing James Hallinan.

Hallinan worked as a spokesman for Lujan Grisham’s 2018 campaign for governor and accused Lujan Grisham of dropping water on his crotch and then grabbing his crotch during a meeting of campaign staff.

Leopold says the settlement resolves “dubious and disputed” potential claims by Hallinan to avoid the distraction and cost of litigation.

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett also says the claims made by Hallinan are false and without merit.

Hallinan has referred recent questions to his attorneys, Kenneth Stalter and Rachel Berlin Benjamin, who say that any differences between Hallinan and the governor have been resolved and that they cannot comment further.

A spokesman for the secretary of state's office says the settlement payments from a political campaign account are permissible because they involve an employment dispute related to Hallinan's time with the campaign.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-19 Deaths For 3rd Day In Row Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Tuesday reported two new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the third consecutive day.

The latest numbers brought the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation to 30,269 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.

"This invisible monster known as COVID-19 is still in our communities," tribal President Jonathan Nez said in a statement Tuesday. "It has taken us over one year to reach this point where we have consistent low numbers of new infections reported each day, but it only takes a few days and few careless acts to have another large surge in new cases."

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.

New Mexico Issues 10-Year Plan For Boosting Forest Health - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Restoring forests, using fire as a management tool and getting more buy-in from private land owners are among the strategies outlined in New Mexico's latest forest action plan.

The state Forestry Division released the plan yesterday. The federal government requires each state to update the plans every decade.

Officials say the latest version includes steps for how New Mexico can work with the federal government and other groups as part of a shared stewardship initiative.

The document also identifies areas that are priorities based on wildfire risks and their importance as sources for water.

The threat of catastrophic wildfire has only grown in recent years as New Mexico has been stuck in a long-term drought. Winter snowpack and summer monsoon seasons have been disappointing, resulting in tinder dry watersheds in the higher elevations and shrinking reservoirs downstream.

The latest drought map shows much of the U.S. Southwest mired in drought, with extreme and exceptional conditions covering about 80% of New Mexico. The state's largest reservoir is only at 11% capacity, and weather forecasters have been issuing warnings about blowing dust and high fire danger.

In southern New Mexico, managers on the Gila National Forest this week pointed to strong spring winds as one reason they were increasing the fire danger level. They warned that all fine dead fuels could ignite readily and unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape and spread rapidly.

Lawsuit Notice Filed In Fatal Shooting Of New Mexico OfficerAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

The wife of a New Mexico State Police officer fatally shot in the line of duty in February has filed a tort claim notice with the state seeking damages, one of the first steps in filing a wrongful death lawsuit.

Gabriella Jarrott alleged that her husband, Darian Jarrott, was told to conduct a dangerous traffic stop without backup and was not informed of the details of the investigation, leading to his death.

The Albuquerque Journal reported yesterday the tort claim notice was filed but a lawsuit has not yet been filed.

New Mexico State Police last Friday made public video of the Feb. 4 shooting in southern New Mexico that showed Jarrott pulling over 39-year-old Omar Cueva. Police said Cueva shot Jarrott a few minutes later multiple times, including in the head.

Cueva fled the scene in his vehicle and fired on officers during the pursuit, police said. Las Cruces officers returned gunshots, fatally hitting Cueva.

Police said Jarrott was helping Homeland Security Investigation agents with a narcotics investigation when he pulled Cueva over, but they have not yet released additional details on the investigation or Jarrott's role.

Sam Bregman, the attorney for Jarrott's family, told  KOAT-TV that the shooting was an ambush.

New Mexico Freshens Up 'True' Campaign To Reignite Tourism - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Authenticity and the idea of adventure steeped in culture have fueled New Mexico's award-winning "True" tourism campaign for more than a decade.

That won't change, but state Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer said Tuesday it was time to refresh the brand ahead of what she said will be a "complete rebirth of New Mexico's tourism economy" as more people are vaccinated and more public health orders prompted by the coronavirus pandemic are relaxed.

Schroer unveiled the new "New Mexico True" logo and tagline during a virtual announcement that included a glimpse of the video storytelling that will drive the latest iteration of the tourism campaign. The new design features the state symbol — the iconic zia, whose origins are rooted in the Indigenous community of Zia Pueblo — and the classic slogan of "Land of Enchantment."

Aside from staying on the cutting edge of the marketing game, officials said the goal is to reignite demand for New Mexico's unspoiled outdoor expanses, its cuisine and culture following a year in which the state lost out on more than $3 billion in visitor spending and tens of thousands of leisure and hospitality workers were left jobless.

The downturn forced by the pandemic followed several years of consecutive record-breaking tourism numbers for New Mexico. With the New Mexico True brand, the state saw visitor spending increase by 34% to $7.4 billion from 2011 to 2019. In 2019 alone, the industry generated $737 million in state and local taxes.

Schroer expressed confidence that the state can get back to that level and that a special appropriation of $7 million in state funds for tourism renewal efforts will help along with federal recovery money that's expected in the coming months.

"This agency is prepared to stretch every dollar to reignite demand and restore our tourism infrastructure," she said. "It's worth reemphasizing the fact that despite the challenges that the pandemic presented during the budget process, we were still allocated the largest budget ever for tourism."

The tourism department has been working on the changes for months, with an eye toward making sure the design and font was flexible and would translate well to everything from the pages of a magazine to highway billboards and online ads.

The agency's website began featuring the updated logo Tuesday, but the department isn't ready to roll out new advertisements just yet. Schroer said the state's public health orders will guide the agency on its "path to renewal" and officials will continue monitoring the vaccine rollout.

Even though elements of New Mexico's "True" campaign have been tapped by neighboring Arizona and Texas in recent years, Schroer said the state can capitalize on its unique offerings — from its tribal nations to the gypsum dunes at White Sands National Park, Carlsbad Caverns, the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and the desert badlands once walked by American modernist painter Georgia O'Keeffe.

"When it comes to experiencing the great outdoors, experiencing culture, when those two things come together, that's adventure steeped in culture and that's a New Mexico True brand promise," she said.

16 States Back Alabama's Challenge To Census Privacy Tool - By Mike Schneider Associated Press

Sixteen other states are backing Alabama's challenge to a statistical method the U.S. Census Bureau is using for the first time to protect the privacy of people who participated in the 2020 census, the nation's once-a-decade head count that determines political power and funding.

A federal judge on Monday allowed the 16 states to file a brief in a support of a lawsuit brought by Alabama last month. The suit seeks to stop the Census Bureau from applying the method known as "differential privacy" to the numbers that will be used for redrawing congressional and legislative seats later this year.

The states supporting Alabama's challenge are Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and West Virginia. Maine and New Mexico have Democratic attorneys general, while all the other states have Republican ones.

A three-judge panel in federal court in Alabama is hearing the case, which could go directly to the Supreme Court if appealed.

Differential privacy adds mathematical "noise," or intentional errors, to the data to obscure any given individual's identity while still providing statistically valid information.

Bureau officials say the change is needed to prevent data miners from matching individuals to confidential details that have been rendered anonymous in the massive data release, which is expected as early as August. It will be applied to race, age and other demographic information in geographic areas within each state.

"It's a statistical technique that is intended to protect people's privacy ... There can be privacy hacks today that technologically weren't possible 10 years ago," said Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo last week during a White House briefing. "So in order for us to keep up with that and protect people's privacy, we have to implement new techniques, and this is one of those new techniques."

The Commerce Department oversees the Census Bureau.

The 16 states supporting Alabama said that differential privacy's use in the redistricting numbers will make the figures inaccurate for all states, especially at small geographic levels, and the Census Bureau could use other methods to protect people's privacy.

Differential privacy "would make accurate redistricting at the local level impossible," violating the constitutional obligation that districts have equal populations, and it also could harm long-running research on health and safety, their brief said.

"Because differential privacy creates false information — by design — it prevents the states from accessing municipal-level information crucial to performing this essential government functions," the 16 states said. "And the distorting impact of differential privacy will likely fall hardest on some of the most vulnerable populations — rural areas and minority racial groups."

A pair of civil rights groups also raised concerns, saying an examination of test Census data showed differential privacy produced numbers that were less accurate for determining if a racial or ethnic minority group formed a majority in a particular community, potentially diluting their local political power. Democratic-led lawmakers in California, the nation's largest state, also raised concerns about differential privacy in a recent letter to President Joe Biden's chief of staff, Ronald Klain.

The Alabama lawsuit also challenges the Census Bureau's decision to push back the release of redistricting data from March 31 to August at the earliest. The statistical agency says the changed deadline was needed because of delays caused by the pandemic, and it had to prioritize the processing of figures used for divvying up congressional seats among the states. That data set is going to be released later this month.

Twenty-seven states are required to finish redistricting this year. The delay has sent states scrambling for alternative plans such as using other data, utilizing previous maps, rewriting laws dealing with the deadlines or asking courts to extend deadlines.

The state of Ohio filed a similar lawsuit over the changed deadlines. A federal judge dismissed the case, but Ohio has appealed. In a response to the appeal, the Census Bureau said Monday that Ohio was seeking the redistricting data "without regard to the Bureau's own views of its completeness and accuracy."

"The Bureau recognizes the states' interest in receiving redistricting data, but Ohio does not explain how the public interest would be served by foreshortening the Bureau's work to produce less accurate, complete, or usable data at an earlier date," the agency said in court papers.

Farmington Man Surprised He Faces Charges In Capitol RiotKOB-TV, Associated Press

A Farmington man arrested for his acknowledged presence inside the U.S. Capitol during the Jan. 6 riot says he is surprised that he now faces criminal charges.

Shawn Bradley Witzemann told KOB-TV that he looks forward to being exonerated and called the charges against him false. He said he has a defense for his presence in the Capitol, though he declined to explain. And he said he wasn't aware beforehand of any plans to breach the Capitol.

"That was the last thing on my mind," he told KOB-TV. "I remember when I went there, I actually had a tent because the only thing that I was aware of anyone was planning was possibly, as they say, occupying the Capitol grounds in a form of peaceful protests."

Authorities say Witzemann acknowledged during an FBI interview that he was inside the Capitol and provided investigators with three videos he took while in the building.

The FBI said Witzemann, who travels to protests to provide live-streaming video coverage and takes part in a podcast called "The Armenian Council for Truth in Journalism," walked into the Capitol, made his way to the building's rotunda and shot video with his phone until an officer told him to leave.

Before entering the building, authorities say Witzemann tried to climb scaffolding to get a better view of the crowd but an officer told him to come down.

In a filing last week, his attorney said Witzemann is a plumber who also is also a freelance journalist and that his client didn't participate in any violence or acts of sedition while inside the Capitol.

Witzemann is charged with knowingly entering or remaining in any restricted building or grounds without lawful authority, disorderly and disruptive conduct in a restricted building or grounds, and other charges.

APS High School To Close Due To COVID-19 Cases – KUNM

Eldorado High School in Albuquerque is closing for two weeks after several students tested positive for COVID-19.

Albuquerque Public Schools sent a letter to families and staff informing them that the campus will close and switch to remote learning following a closure order from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

The letter notes the department requires schools to close within 7 days of multiple positive cases. APS says all but one of the positive cases at Eldorado was apparently contracted off the campus.

The letter says students and staff who had contact with those who tested positive will be notified and should quarantine for 10 days as required by the Department of Health.

The school is suspending all practices and competitions for two weeks.

The New Mexico state health officials on Monday reported 647 new COVID-19 cases from Saturday to Monday and 3 additional deaths. That included 227 new cases in Bernalillo County, where Eldorado is located.

New Mexico Governor Signs Bill To Legalize Recreational Pot - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed legislation Monday legalizing recreational marijuana use within months and kicking off sales next year, making it the seventh state since November to put an end to pot prohibition.

The governor, a Democrat, has supported marijuana reform as a way to create jobs and shore up state revenue. 

On Monday, she also touched on concerns about the harm inflicted on racial and ethnic minorities by drug criminalization and tough policing, noting that the new law could free about 100 from prison and expunge criminal records for thousands of residents.

"It is good for workers. It is good for entrepreneurs. It is good for consumers," she said of legalization. "And it brings about social justice in ways in which we have been talking about and advocating for, for decades."

The signed bill gives the governor a strong hand in oversight of recreational marijuana through her appointed superintendent of the Regulation and Licensing Department. 

Agency Superintendent Linda Trujillo said people age 21 and over will be allowed start growing marijuana at home and possess up to 2 ounces of cannabis outside their homes starting on June 29.

Recreational cannabis sales start next year by April 1 at state-licensed dispensaries.

Lujan Grisham highlighted that licensed cannabis farmers can begin scaling up cultivation several months ahead of opening day in efforts to keep pace with demands when sales begin.

New Mexico voters ousted ardent opponents of legalization from the state Senate in the 2020 Democratic primary, opening the way for recreational marijuana.

The governor called a special legislative session to tackle the issue in late March after legalization efforts faltered.

Legislators rallied behind a legalization framework from state Rep. Javier Martínez of Albuquerque that provides automated procedures for expunging past pot convictions.

Martinez said he hopes that a spate of legalization efforts by states will spur the federal government to follow suit, linking tides of immigration from Central America to drug-cartel violence and related corruption.

"I grew up along the border. I've seen what the war on drugs has done," Martinez said. "I'm proud that New Mexico — little old New Mexico — has done its part to tell the federal government once and for all to legalize cannabis for the people."

Republican lawmakers were notably absent from the signing ceremony, though GOP state Sen. Cliff Pirtle was credited with influencing the outcome through a competing bill that emphasized free markets and public safety.

Regulators in early legalization states have been whipsawed by initial fluctuations in marijuana supplies and prices, amid concerns about child access and workplace and roadway safety.

In New Mexico, regulators will be able to put a cap on marijuana cultivation quantities for years to come and impose a per-plant state fee of up to $50 a year. The new law mandates child-proof packaging and defers to employers on whether workers can indulge in marijuana.

At the same time, home marijuana growers will be allowed to grow up to six plants per person, or 12 per household. The scent of marijuana will no longer be grounds for police searches.

Local governments can't prohibit marijuana businesses from setting up shop. They can have a say through zoning about the location and hours of operation. 

Medical marijuana dispensaries already are staking out territory in small towns near the border with Texas — a major potential market for marijuana tourism. It remains illegal to transport marijuana across state lines.

Challenges await state regulators as they prepare to accept applications for a variety of marijuana business licenses as soon as September. The state will license product testing labs, industrial operations that grow, refine, package and sell cannabis products and craft marijuana "microbusiness" that grow only up to 200 plants.

Rules also are due by the start of 2022 on product safety, minimum qualifications for a marijuana business license and standards for vetting and training "cannabis servers" — who must hold a state permit and be 21 or older.

The state will levy an excise tax on recreational pot sales that starts at 12% and rises over time to 18%, on top of current taxes on sales. 

All taxes will be waived on medical marijuana. Decisions are still pending about exactly how much marijuana the industry must set aside for qualified medical cannabis patients.

Enrollment in the state's existing medical marijuana program climbed in March to more than 112,000 patients -- about 5% of the state's population of 2.1 million residents.

The approved legislation allows the state to forge agreements with Native American tribal governments that could open the marijuana industry to tribal enterprises.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-19 Deaths For 2nd Day In Row Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported two new confirmed COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the second consecutive day.

The latest numbers brought the pandemic totals on the tribe's reservation to 30,267 cases and 1,262 known deaths.

Tribal officials had ordered a weekend lockdown 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.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez last week 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.

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

Albuquerque Issues Summons To Armed Man At Downtown RallyAssociated Press

Police say one armed man showed up for a planned white supremacist rally in downtown Albuquerque.

Police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos Jr. says police had prepared Sunday for the possibility of a huge turnout but it never materialized.

Authorities say an armed man, accompanied by two women and two children, nearly came to blows with a few hundred counter-protesters at Civic Plaza.

Gallegos says officers moved all five into the Albuquerque Convention Center to defuse the situation.

No arrests were made but police issued a court summons to the armed man on one charge of child endangerment.

Gallegos says officers also responded to a fight in Civic Plaza. One person was injured but declined medical treatment or to press charges.

New Mexico Leads US Southwest In Broadband Needs - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

New Mexico has the highest percentage of residents in the U.S. Southwest without adequate broadband internet service, a problem highlighted Monday by the Biden administration as it looks to infuse more than $2 trillion into infrastructure projects nationwide.

The administration released details about each state's needs for everything from internet access to highways, affordable housing and drinking water projects.

In New Mexico, the federal government estimates that 22% of residents live in areas where there's no broadband infrastructure that provides acceptable internet speeds. Nearly 70% are in areas where there's only one such internet provider.

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted connectivity problems over the past year as schools turned to remote learning and other services were forced to go online only.

About one in five New Mexico households do not have an internet subscription, according to the administration's summary.

Around the Southwest, the percentages of households without subscriptions are much lower — ranging from around 9% in Utah and Colorado to 13% in Arizona and 14% in Nevada.

Sen. Ben Ray Luján, a New Mexico Democrat who chairs a congressional subcommittee that has been focusing on the digital divide, recently introduced legislation with Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that would reimburse schools for installing Wi-Fi on buses.

Luján also introduced a measure that would authorize $5 billion for a program that makes low-interest financing available for broadband infrastructure projects.

Luján said at a hearing last month that the goal should be "100% connectivity" with fast, affordable internet nationwide. He told the story of a New Mexico middle school student who had to sit in the sun all day to connect to Wi-Fi and ended up with heatstroke.

Luján told The Associated Press in an email Monday that bridging the divide, tackling the homework gap and promoting digital equity are longstanding priorities.

"Broadband has quickly become an essential utility, making it possible for students to learn, doctors to provide life-saving care, and businesses to keep their doors open during this pandemic," he said. "Sadly, in too many communities across our state, we're falling short of connecting every New Mexican."

The state-by-state needs outlined by the Biden administration indicate a massive backlog after years of repairs being deferred and delayed. Most states received a letter grade on their infrastructure, with the highest grade of C-plus going to Georgia and Utah.

New Mexico did not get a grade, but the summary indicated that its 207 bridges and more than 3,800 miles of highway are in poor condition and costing drivers $767 per year on average.

Over the next two decades, New Mexico's drinking water infrastructure will require an estimated $1.4 billion in additional funding. More than half of residents live in places where child care is hard to find, and 126,000 renters are spending more than 30% of their income on rent due to a lack of affordable housing.

Alamogordo Man Loses High Court Appeal Of Murder Conviction Associated Press

An Alamogordo man serving life in prison for murder and other crimes has lost an appeal.

The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the convictions Monday of Robert "Bob" Chavez in the 2011 killing of a man whose body was later burned.

Chavez's attorneys had argued he should not have been tried in 2019 jointly with Matias Loza, who pleaded guilty to murder and other charges.

The state's highest court unanimously found that a joint trial did not impact Chavez's civil rights or his defense.

Prosecutors say Chavez, his brother Joe and Loza ran a drug-trafficking gang called the AZ Boys. It originated in the Phoenix area but they moved to Alamogordo.

All three were implicated in the death of Richard Valdez. According to prosecutors, Valdez was killed the day after an altercation at a restaurant. Chavez's nephew testified he helped his uncle and Loza beat Valdez before Loza shot him to death. Valdez's body was then set on fire inside a car. The nephew admitted that Chavez gave him matches to start the blaze. Other evidence included a recorded conversation of Chavez talking about a plan to kill the victim.

The Chavez brothers and Loza were also indicted in 2019 in the 2009 execution-style slayings of Max Griego Jr. and his girlfriend, Mary Hudson Gutierrez.