TUES: Officials Urge Caution As Hospitalizations Decline, Legislative Session Begins, + More

Jan 19, 2021


Officials Urge Precautions As Virus Hospitalizations Decline - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Officials with New Mexico's largest health care providers say a recent decrease in statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations is not enough to ease up on mask wearing or other measures aimed at curbing spread.

Hospital administrators provided an update during a briefing Tuesday.

The number of people hospitalized in New Mexico due to the virus was just over 640 on Tuesday, slightly higher than the day before but still one of the lowest levels in months.

But the hospital officials described the decrease as more of a plateau, saying modeling suggests they could continue to see increases through February.

New Mexico has confirmed nearly 165,000 infections since the pandemic began.

In northwestern New Mexico, officials said coronavirus-related hospitalizations have not let up. Hospitals elsewhere remain at capacity with patients who need care for other medical emergencies.

CHRISTUS St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe has seen somewhat of a decrease in patients in its specialized COVID-19 unit. Chief Medical Officer Dr. David Gonzales said that has allowed the hospital to open up parts of that unit to serve other patients.

Another challenge has been balancing demands on the health care workforce, which is dealing with COVID-19 duty, a seasonal surge of other illnesses and the need to ramp up vaccination efforts.

Traveling nurses are still being used and some employees are working overtime to help with vaccinations, said Dr. Jeff Salvon-Harman, the chief patient safety officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services.

Presbyterian and other providers are coordinating with state health officials to set up large vaccine distribution sites now that New Mexico has expanded eligibility for the shots. For example, a vaccine clinic is ramping up at the University of New Mexico's arena in Albuquerque, also known as The Pit.

Hospitals usually receive their vaccine allocations at the beginning of the week with little advance notice of exactly how many doses they will be getting. Gonzales said that makes planning difficult.

Still, New Mexico has among one of the highest vaccination rates in the U.S., having administered more than 143,000 doses so far.

New Mexico has confirmed nearly 165,000 COVID-19 infections since the pandemic began while deaths are approaching the 3,000 mark. That includes a Dona Ana County woman in her 30s who was among the 20 additional deaths reported Tuesday.

Spread rates also are still far above New Mexico's targets for reopening, and public health mandates are expected to remain in place for many months for the state's most populated areas.

Jailed Cowboys For Trump Leader Urged To Quit County OfficeAssociated Press

A New Mexico county official who runs the group Cowboys for Trump and was arrested in connection with the riot at the U.S. Capitol is facing calls to resign.

Otero County Commissioners Gerald Matherly and Vickie Marquardt demanded in a statement Tuesday that fellow district commissioner Couy Griffin step down immediately.

They say his arrest Sunday by the FBI is a culmination of an endless series of investigations and lawsuits stemming from his promotion of Cowboys for Trump.

He did not immediately respond to a text message seeking comment.

According to court documents, Griffin told investigators that he was "caught up" in the crowd, which pushed its way through the barricades and entered the restricted area of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. But he said he never entered the building and instead remained on the U.S. Capitol steps.

A video posted to Griffin's personal Facebook page shows Griffin in the restricted areas, according to the affidavit.

During an Otero County Board of Commissioners meeting last Thursday, Griffin said he planned to travel with firearms to Washington, D.C., for Biden's inauguration.

Matherly and Marquardt say they will join a recall effort and the New Mexico attorney general's lawsuit to remove him from office if he doesn't resign.

Tribal Leaders Blast Congressman Opposed To Biden NominationAssociated Press

A group of Native American tribes in a Minnesota congressman's district is rebuking him for his attempts to derail President-elect Joe Biden's pick for Interior secretary.

If confirmed, Rep. Deb Haaland, a Democrat from New Mexico, would be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior.

Republican Rep. Pete Stauber, a member of the House's subcommittee on Indigenous Peoples, has been asking fellow lawmakers to join him in urging Biden's transition team to withdraw Haaland's nomination.

In a letter seeking support, Stauber cites Haaland's opposition to policies that he says would place a moratorium on mining in northern Minnesota.

A letter dated Jan. 14 and signed by leaders of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, and Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe accuses Stauber of bowing to big industrial interests at their expense.

The Midwest Alliance of Sovereign Tribes, which represents 35 tribal nations in the region, also wrote to Stauber, calling the lawmaker's campaign against Haaland "offensive, "hostile" and "irresponsible."

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, serves with Stauber on the House Natural Resources Committee. If confirmed, she would lead a department with broad oversight over tribal lands in the U.S.

Navajo Nation Reports 65 New COVID-19 Cases, 3 More Deaths Associated Press

Officials on the Navajo Nation reported 65 new COVID-19 cases and three more deaths.

The latest figures released late Monday bring the total reported coronavirus cases on the reservation to 26,448, including 922 deaths.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement that while people are getting vaccinated, it's crucial to keep in mind that another variant of the virus has been found in nearby regions.

Nez says residents still need to remain vigilant and practice health safety measures like staying home. Residents of the vast reservation are still under a stay-at-home order Friday through Monday morning.

On Tuesday, the Navajo Department of Health identified 75 communities with uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 from Jan. 1-14.

The number of infections is thought to be higher than reported because many people haven't been tested.

Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Teeter-Totters At U.S.-Mexico Border Win UK Design Prize - By Danica Kirka, Associated Press

A collection of teeter-totters that briefly allowed children on both sides of the US-Mexico border wall to play together has won a prize from London's Design Museum.

The three hot-pink seesaws were installed through the slats of the wall, with one seat in Sunland Park, New Mexico, near El Paso, Texas, and the other in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.

The artwork was put up on July 28, 2019, and removed from the politically charged border barrier after less than an hour.

Teeter-Totter Wall was designed by California architects Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello with help from Colectivo Chopeke, an artists' collective in Juarez.

The Design Museum named the project Tuesday as the overall winner of the Beazley Designs of the Year competition for 2020, which considered 74 projects by designers from around the world.

"It encouraged new ways of human connection and struck a chord that continues to resonate far beyond El Paso in the USA and Juarez in Mexico,'' museum director Tim Marlow said in announcing the prize. "It remains an inventive and poignant reminder of how human beings can transcend the forces that seek to divide us."

The teeter-totters were installed amid the heated debate over U.S. President Donald Trump's plan to build a wall along the almost 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico.

"We thought this would be a moment to show to the world a very important reality of the border, which is that the border isn't a desolate place where no one lives," Rael, a professor of architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, told a university publication in 2019. "This is a world where women live and children live and that we can use play as a kind of vehicle for activism."

New Mexico Lawmakers Look For Solutions To Hobbled Economy - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers confronted daunting challenges as they began a 60-day session Tuesday amid an unrelenting coronavirus pandemic and concerns of violence at a Statehouse guarded by troops and encircled by fencing, barricades and mobile security cameras.

Proposals aimed at reviving the economy and rebooting classroom learning are at the top of the agenda for lawmakers in the Democratic-led Legislature. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is pushing for a budget deal that would increase state spending on pandemic relief, education and health care.

Democrats also have drafted lightning-rod initiatives that would allow broad marijuana sales, shore up abortion rights and reform police oversight.

Leading House Republicans said their priority will be proposals that allow students to return to classrooms immediately by providing greater autonomy to school boards, teachers and families.

Most schools are providing remote learning only, with some small in-person lessons for younger students and special education students.

The House came into session with calls in English and Spanish of "present on the floor" and "presente." Most Democrats tuned in via videoconference from their offices and most Republicans stood on the House floor.

In the Senate, legislators in face masks exchanged elbow bumps and sat down between Plexiglas barriers meant to reduce the risk of the virus spreading. The rotunda and hallways of the Legislature — ordinarily buzzing with lobbyists, school groups and jewelry vendors — were eerily empty and quiet.

Outside, there were no indications of protests amid warnings from federal authorities of possible insurrection attempts at statehouses.

Direct federal aid to state government in 2020 helped bolster New Mexico's finances. The state has general fund reserves of roughly $2.5 billion, or about 34% of annual spending obligations.

Republican House leaders were the first to propose the aid to front-line workers, but they are vowing to fight major Democratic initiatives on taxes, abortion rights, medically assisted suicide and policing reforms.

For major policy reforms, all eyes are on the Senate and a new vanguard of progressive Democrats who campaigned on efforts to tap more education money from the state's $20 billion permanent fund.

New Mexico Legislators Look For Solutions To Hobbled Economy - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Daunting challenges await the New Mexico Legislature as it convenes a 60-day session amid an unrelenting pandemic and concerns of violence at a Statehouse building guarded by troops and encircled by fencing, barricades and mobile security cameras.

Proposals aimed at reviving the economy are at the top of political agendas for lawmakers in the Democratic-led House and Senate, as Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham pushes for a budget deal that would increase state spending on pandemic relief, education and health care.

Lightning-rod initiatives also have been drafted that would allow recreational cannabis sales, shore up abortion rights and reform oversight of police forces.

The session is scheduled to begin by statute at noon on Tuesday amid warnings from federal authorities of possible insurrection attempts at statehouses.

Protesters last gathered outside New Mexico's Capitol building on Jan. 6 in Santa Fe to peacefully dispute Joe Biden's presidential victory while a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.

Democratic House Speaker Brian Egolf on Monday praised troops and law enforcement for safeguarding the state Capitol at the direction of legislative leaders.

Republican House whip Rod Montoya said the security measures in Santa Fe have left no room for any kind of public protests and weren't knowingly approved by House Republicans.

The Capitol building is closed to the public and lobbyists indefinitely. 

Lawmakers hope to use their first day to decide on ground rules for videoconferencing and new leadership roles in the Senate after the ouster of several top Senate Democrats in 2020 elections.

The governor's traditional State of the State speech at the opening of the legislative session has been postponed.

Leading Democratic lawmakers have placed economic relief at the top of their agenda — including aid aimed at front-line, low-wage workers.

Republican House leaders were the first to propose the aid to front-line workers, but they are vowing to fight major Democratic initiatives on taxes, abortion rights, medically assisted suicide and policing reforms.

For major policy reforms, all eyes are on the state Senate and a new vanguard of progressive Democrats who campaigned on efforts to tap more education money from the state's $20 billion permanent fund.

New Mexico Governor Postpones Annual Address To Legislature - Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has delayed indefinitely her annual State of the State address amid the dangers and logistical challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett says the speech will not take place at the opening of the Legislature on Tuesday as it traditionally would. 

Ordinarily, the governor of New Mexico delivers a speech about current events, recent government accomplishments and legislative priorities to a joint session of the House and Senate also attended by Cabinet secretaries and justices of the state Supreme Court. 

Governors including Wisconsin's Tony Evers have opted for remote, pre-recorded State of State speeches this year.

New Mexico is confronting unprecedented economic and public health challenges amid the pandemic's devastation as the Legislature convenes for a 60-day session. 

Precautions due to security threats are on prominent display with State Police and National Guard troops standing guard at roadblocks encircling the Statehouse.

New Mexico Reopens Classrooms To Some Students After Halt - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Classrooms in some New Mexico schools were scheduled on Monday to allow in-person education for the first time this semester. 

The Albuquerque Journal reported in-person classes were temporarily suspended by the state for two weeks to prevent a feared increase in COVID-19 cases. 

Small groups of students with disabilities were allowed to attend classes, but schools offering other in-person classes had to shut their doors and teach remotely. 

Schools are now able to restart schedules that were planned before the pause, including those mixing in-person and remote lessons. 

The New Mexico Public Education Department was unable to immediately provide a count of schools that planned to reopen in-person classes Monday.

Previously, about 60 schools were operating on a hybrid model and four districts, each with 100 students or less, were allowed to hold in-person learning with five students per teacher. 

The temporary ban on in-person learning was prudent, state Secretary of Education Ryan Stewart said.

About 100 miles southeast of Albuquerque, Corona Public Schools was among the districts allowed to bring its K-12 students back to campus — all 60 of them. 

Superintendent Travis Lightfoot said he was eager to return, having missed the students and spent the past two weeks juggling his work while helping his daughters with their at-home learning. 

Some districts, such as Rio Rancho Public Schools, will see students return on Tuesday because of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday on Monday.

Most schools in the state are continuing to do remote learning or small in-person lessons for younger students and special education students.

The Albuquerque Public Schools Board of Education plans to keep students in remote learning until Bernalillo County meets "green" level public health thresholds for COVID-19 data, including a drop in the rates of reported cases. 

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Albuquerque Schools Appeals Fines For Late Filings, Payments - Albuquerque Journal, Associated Press

Albuquerque Public Schools officials say they are appealing more than $650,000 in fines from the IRS due to late tax form filings and payroll tax payments.

The  Albuquerque Journal reported  that an audit of the school district's budget year that ended in June 2020 found the district may face penalties of $666,379 for submitting late W-2 forms for 2018 and late payments of payroll taxes for the budget year that ended in September 2019.

The district's Board of Education President David Peercy says he wants administrators to ensure the late submissions do not happen again.

Director of accounting Ben Lubkeman says the late payroll taxes were caused by a human error and discovered four weeks later and then paid in full. He says the W-2 forms were filed late after the due date was changed by law and officials missed the date change. 

Lubkeman says the district has appealed the penalties in each incidence and is waiting for a determination. 

New Mexico Reports 628 New Virus Cases Monday, 26 Deaths - Associated Press

Health officials in New Mexico said 628 new coronavirus cases and 26 deaths were reported Monday.

The latest numbers from the Department of Health bring the total known cases to 163,637 and deaths from COVID-19 to 2,958. 

Of the new cases, 161 are in Bernalillo County, the state's largest county that includes Albuquerque. 

San Juan County, which includes Farmington, had 62 new cases. 

Gov. Lujan Grisham Not Planning To Attend Biden Inauguration - KOB-TV, Associated Press

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will not be attending President-elect Joe Biden's inauguration in Washington on Wednesday. 

Lujan Grisham's office told KOB-TV in Albuquerque that the Democratic governor does not plan to attend the ceremony at the U.S. Capitol. 

Washington, D.C., has been designated as a restricted place of travel for New Mexicans, requiring them to quarantine for 14 days upon returning from D.C.

She has discouraged people from making any non-essential trips during the pandemic.

She campaigned for Biden and was among those seen as possible U.S. Cabinet candidates for the post of health and human services secretary or interior secretary in the Biden administration.

Biden is nominating U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico as interior secretary and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as health and human services secretary.

Section Of Navajo Nation Road Closed Because Of Drag Racing - Farmington Daily Times, Associated Press

Officials have closed a section of road on the Navajo Nation through the end of February due to concerns about persistent drag racing. 

The Farmington Daily Times reported Monday that the Bureau of Indian Affairs Division of Transportation closed 2.5 miles of Navajo Route 4178 near the Navajo Agricultural Products Industry farm and food product company.

NAPI CEO Dave Zeller said drag racing has been an issue in the area for several years and is a safety concern for employees and travelers. 

Navajo Police Department spokeswoman Christina Tsosie says police resources and officers have been stationed in the area but officials need a long-term plan.

Navajo Nation Reports 96 New Cases, 4 COVID-19 Deaths Sunday - Associated Press

Officials on the Navajo Nation reported 96 new COVID-19 cases and four more deaths Sunday. 

The latest figures bring the total reported coronavirus cases on the reservation to 26,383, including 919 deaths. 

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez says that with the holidays having passed, he is optimistic that the reservation has started to flatten its curve of positive cases. 

He is hopeful that the administration of the vaccine will help flatten the curve even more. 

Nez says residents still need to remain vigilant and practice health safety measures like staying home.