TUES: New Mexico Prepares For Rationing Care, Lawmakers Get Rosier Revenue Picture, + More

Dec 8, 2020

New Mexico Prepared For Rationing Care If Pandemic Worsens - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Top health officials say New Mexico has a solid plan in place to stretch hospital and health care resources as far as possible before having to ration care.

But they also warned during an update Tuesday that the state could face that prospect if the coronavirus pandemic worsens.

Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said there are hospitals around New Mexico facing extremely high demands and state health officials are expected to formally declare soon that providers are at a stage where rationing care is possible.

Such a step is likely despite a slowdown in the rate of spread and a decrease in the number of COVID-19 cases being reported daily in the state.

Under a crisis standards of care declaration, an established framework and guidelines would be used for making ethical decisions about triaging care.

Local triage boards are up and running at hospitals around the state and a centralized call center has been helping to identify which hospitals have room and which ones need help.

Unlike other states, the idea early on was for separate providers in New Mexico to work together to pool their resources since the state already ranked near the bottom nationally for the number of hospital beds per 1,000 residents.

Officials stressed that the tools used by the local triage boards to make decisions are objective and based on equity and fairness. They also said the foundation for developing those tools is rooted in plans that have been crafted over recent years and months by experts both nationally and in New Mexico.

The only criteria that would determine the allocation for resources and care is whether a person would be likely to survive a COVID-19 infection, officials said.

As resources become more scarce, officials explained, the duty of health care providers shifts from focusing on the individual patient to making sure decisions maximize benefits for all patients.

Confirmed infections in New Mexico are close to 110,000 since the pandemic began, with roughly half of those being reported in November. The number of related deaths reported in a single day hit record highs twice last week, and hospitalizations still are hovering over 900.

Virus Outbreak In Texas Army Base Alarms New Mexico Leaders - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

The New Mexico congressional delegation is raising questions about a coronavirus outbreak among a group of soldiers in El Paso, Texas, which borders their state.

The Oregon Army National Guard unit recently returned from a month-long deployment in the southern European country of Kosovo as part of a NATO peacekeeping force. The Senators and Congress members say they've learned 70 soldiers have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

In a letter to the Pentagon, the delegation asks for details about how the army will test and contact trace among soldiers in the 41st Infantry Brigade Combat Team stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas.

It also asks if contact tracing has detected spread from members of the unit to people outside of it.

The base is about 45 minutes from Las Cruces, New Mexico, and 20 miles from Otero, New Mexico, which has shooting ranges and other training facilities used by soldiers and law enforcement officers.

Pearce Elected To Another Term As Chair Of New Mexico GOPAssociated Press

Steve Pearce will serve another term as chairman of the Republican Party of New Mexico.
The former congressman beat three challengers to hold on to the leadership post. Members of the party's central committee voted during an online meeting Monday.

There were questions about the initial tally as it showed Pearce ahead of radio station owner Eddy Aragon by just one vote. Party spokesman Mike Curtis said a mistake by the company tallying the results was corrected and Pearce widened his lead.

Pearce says the party will continue to push to win more legislative seats and mayoral races around the state.

Sex Abuse Victims Want Archdiocese Eliminated, Lawyer SaysAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

An attorney for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe has claimed that alleged victims of clergy sexual abuse and their lawyers are seeking to eliminate the archdiocese in New Mexico by seeking information about the church's holdings.

Three lawsuits claim that the archdiocese illegally transferred about $245 million to parishes and their trusts before the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy.

An attorney for some of the victims called the accusation made at a court hearing Monday unconstructive and untrue.

The archdiocese's website lists 79 priests and clergy members who were "credibly accused" of sexually abusing children.

The archdiocese previously filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization in 2018 after a slew of child sexual abuse claims against clergy were reported.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the archdiocese and parishes want the New Mexico lawsuits placed on hold while they appeal an Oct. 9 ruling that allowed the alleged victims to pursue the cases.

The archdiocese is among 29 Catholic dioceses and religious orders in the U.S. that have filed for bankruptcy because of sexual abuse accusations.

Economists Predict Rebound In New Mexico Government Income - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

State economists are predicting a rebound in New Mexico state government income for the fiscal year that starts in July 2021, on top of multibillion-dollar financial reserves.

Economists for the Legislature and three state agencies said Tuesday that the state anticipates an increase in general fund revenues of $163 million over current annual spending obligations. That's roughly a 2% increase.

The state is likely to finish the fiscal year in July with $2.4 billion in financial reserves. That leaves New Mexico well-positioned to maintain funding for essential services in public education, public safety, health care and more amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Finance and Administration Secretary Debbie Romero told a panel of lawmakers state agencies are scrapping plans for spending cuts and instead are preparing for sustained or increased spending in the fiscal year that runs from July 2021 to June 2022

Still, economists warn of uncertainty linked to the presidential transition, possible new federal relief and the path of the virus.

Dawn Iglesias, chief staff economist at the Legislative Finance Committee, said that direct federal relief to the state bolstered state finances by about $1 billion, as state reserves have swelled to record levels.

Crucial state income from gross receipts taxes on sales and business transactions has been propped up by a variety of federal pandemic relief — ranging from supplemental unemployment checks that ran out in September to cash infusions to businesses under the federal paycheck protection program.

Iglesias told legislators that privately collected data on consumer spending shows a dramatic shift to online spending, and that revenues among small businesses statewide may be down 40% in November versus the same month in 2019. New Mexico still doesn't fully tax those sales under a phase-in of gross receipts taxes for online retailers.

New Mexico Seeks Court's Protection From Business Lawsuits - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

New Mexico's governor and top health officials are trying to fend off a flurry of lawsuits by businesses owners who say financial losses caused by the state's pandemic health orders amount to a regulatory taking and should be compensated.

In a Monday night court filing, the administration of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham urged the state Supreme Court to intervene and defuse the lawsuits.

“Under well-established law, harms caused by the exercise of the state's police power to protect public health are not compensable,” attorneys for the governor's office and the state attorney general's wrote.

Oral arguments are scheduled in January as the Supreme Court weighs the fate of at least 14 lawsuits filed in district court that describe the pandemic-related health orders as a regulatory “taking” that merits just compensation to businesses under provisions of the state Constitution and health-emergency statutes.

The original lawsuits were filed by businesses running the gamut from an oxygen healing bar in downtown Santa Fe to a florist in Farmington and an auction house in rural Portales that have been adversely affected by the state's pandemic response.

Steve Pearce Reelected State GOP ChairAlbuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

Former Congressman Steve Pearce has been reelected as chair of the New Mexico Republican Party.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports party members voted Monday. Party spokesperson Mike Curtas told the New Mexican 184 votes were cast.

Pearce beat out three challengers: talk radio host Eddy Aragon, military veteran Eric Lucero and businessman Geoffrey Snider.

The Albuquerque Journal reports the vote’s initial tally had Pearce winning by a single vote. Late Monday, Curtas told the Journal the closeness of results was a mistake and that Pearce had actually won by 29 votes. Curtas placed blame on the company that tallied the votes for the discrepancy between the totals. 

Challenger Eddy Aragon has called on the party to redo the election. Pearce told the Journal the final election results are accurate.
Pearce was first elected to lead the state’s GOP in 2018 after losing a bid for the state’s top post against Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

State Insurance Regulator Seeks To Block Exclusions - By Cedar Attanasio and Morgan Lee, Associated Press / Report For America

The state's top insurance regulator announced several directives Monday aimed at safeguarding access to health insurance, COVID-19 testing and treatment.

One directive from Insurance Superintendent Russell Toal puts a freeze on recent proposals by commercial insurers to exclude coverage for various risks presented by COVID-19, as regulators emphasize the need for "consistent and equitable review under meaningful substantive criteria."

The suspension lasts through the 2021 regular legislative session, which ends in March, and possibly longer.

Another bulletin reminds insurance companies of existing rules against "cost-sharing" in which medical patients are billed for coronavirus testing, diagnosis and treatment.

During the week ending Sunday, one person in every 165 people statewide was diagnosed with COVID-19.

New Mexico also is among the top 10 states for newly confirmed cases per capita over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project.

Business closures as a result of repeated coronavirus infections have slowed to a trickle in recent weeks. The Environment Department shut down one business during the week ending Dec. 6 — a Chick-Fil-A outlet in Santa Fe, N.M.

The current public health order mandates certain establishments close for two weeks if they have four or more rapid responses within the last 14 days.

On Friday, the state began requiring employers to notify the state within four hours of learning about a positive case.

Vaccine Alone Won't Save New Mexico Hospitals, Leaders Say - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

New Mexico hospital officials updated the public Monday on the overburdened healthcare system as cases and hospitalizations remain high.

They're begging the public to cancel social visits, wear a mask and wash hands to drive down the COVID-19 cases. They're working to manage congested hospitals and exhausted medical staff.

On Monday, health officials reported 1,872 newly confirmed infections and seven related deaths. There were 26 new cases among inmates held by federal agencies at the Cibola County Corrections Center.

Healthcare leaders said that their workers are getting COVID-19 from friends, family and community members more than co-workers and patients.

At least 18 health care workers are known to have died from COVID-19 before the start of December. There are 935 people currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state.

On Friday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham set the table for legal protections for hospitals for a scenario in which they have to triage, or ration medical care due to being swamped by COVID-19 patients.

Healthcare leaders say the expected delivery of 17,500 doses of the Pfizer vaccine won't be a silver bullet for an overstretched workforce of doctors, nurses, techs and other hospital staff.

ICU Beds Nearing Capacity On Navajo Nation As Virus SurgesAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Monday reported 213 new COVID-19 cases and 15 more deaths.

In all, the tribe has now reported 18,163 cases and 682 known deaths since the pandemic began.

The Navajo Department of Health now has identified 77 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Nov. 20 to Dec. 3.

Tribal officials say nearly all intensive care unit beds on the reservation are being used as coronavirus cases surge. They warn that the tribe is nearing a point where health care workers will have to make difficult decisions about providing care with limited hospital resources. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Sunday evening that there are few options to transport patients to other regional hospitals that are near full capacity.

ID Of Man Who Found Rocky Mountains Treasure Chest Revealed - By Mead Gruver, Associated Press

A grandson of the late author and art dealer Forrest Fenn has confirmed that a medical school student from Michigan found an over $1 million treasure chest that Fenn stashed in the wilds of Wyoming more than a decade ago.

Shiloh Forrest Old wrote Monday on a website dedicated to the treasure that 32-year-old Jonathan "Jack" Stuef found the treasure in June.

Stuef had met with Fenn soon after finding the treasure. Stuef also identified himself to Daniel Barbarisi for an article published Monday by Outside Magazine.

Fenn left clues to finding the treasure in a poem in his memoir, "The Thrill of the Chase."

The poem inspired many to go treasure hunting — sometimes getting  into precarious situations in the unforgiving Rocky Mountain backcountry.

Fenn said repeatedly the treasure wasn't in a dangerous or especially hard-to-reach place but at least four people died searching for the chest.

Many others needed rescue, including a man who rappelled into the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in winter.

Fenn announced June 6 that the treasure had been found but did not say who found it or where. He said in July the treasure was found in Wyoming and died in September at age 90 without identifying the finder.