TUES: Virus Variant From U.K. Found On Navajo Nation, Lawmakers Meet On Pot Legalization, + More

Mar 30, 2021

Virus Variant Identified In Britain Found On Navajo NationAssociated Press

A coronavirus variant first identified in Britain has been found on the Navajo Nation.

Tribal health officials said Tuesday the United Kingdom strain was confirmed in a sample obtained in the western part of the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. It has been detected throughout the United States.

The Navajo Department of Health is working with states and other public health agencies to identify any more variant cases, Navajo President Jonathan Nez said.

"We don't want to cause panic, but we want to reinforce the need to take all precautions by limiting travel, getting tested if symptoms occur, wearing one or two masks, avoiding medium to large in-person gatherings, practice social distancing and washing your hands often," Nez said in a statement.

Viruses constantly mutate and coronavirus variants are circulating around the globe.

The person who tested positive for the variant on the Navajo Nation had been fully vaccinated. The tribe’s health director Jill Jim said the person was hospitalized and is recovering. Contact tracing determined the variant did not spread beyond that person, she said.

Loretta Christensen, the chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service's Navajo-area service unit, said Monday that the tribe will start distributing free rapid home test kits in an effort to monitor the trajectory of the coronavirus.

The Navajo Nation has reported 30,064 cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began, and 1,246 deaths.

New Mexico Organizers Plan For International Balloon Fiesta - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Organizers are planning for this year's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and spectators will likely be allowed as ticket sales for the annual fall event are expected to begin in July.

The fiesta's early morning mass ascensions, fireworks shows and launches of special-shaped hot air balloons attracts hundreds of thousands of spectators from around the globe and hundreds of balloon pilots and their crews. Last year's event wasn't held because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity said Tuesday that the board of directors is committed to following the state's public health mandates and will have updates on the status of the event each month. The board also plans to identify health measures for pilots and guests by the time tickets go on sale.

"Of course, the measures may be updated based on the current environment and will be evaluated as October approaches," Garrity said.

New Mexico has had some of the nation's most restrictive rules in place to curb the spread of COVID-19. Despite criticism, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials have argued that the rules were necessary because of the lack of access to health care in the state and the high numbers of people with existing health conditions that put them at greater risk.

Some of the restrictions have been relaxed in recent weeks as more counties have met the state's benchmarks. But the mask mandate remains in place statewide.

Under New Mexico's color-coded system, a color is assigned based on the risk level in a particular county. The risk is determined by two key metrics: a test positivity rate below 5% and a new per-capita case rate of fewer than 8 per 100,000.

A county that meets one of the benchmarks over a two-week period may operate at the yellow level. A county that meets both benchmarks is considered green, while those that fall short of both are red. Those that are classified as turquoise have been able to hold steady at the lower rates for a longer period of time.

The most recent map released by the state Health Department showed all but 10 of New Mexico's 33 counties operating as either green or turquoise.

State officials have pointed to increasing vaccination rates for the decline in spread. So far, more than 27% of New Mexicans are fully vaccinated and that's expected to rise as New Mexico continues with its vaccine campaign.

Virgin Galactic Rolls Out Latest Generation Of Spaceship - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Virgin Galactic rolled out its latest spaceship as the company gets ready to resume test flights in the coming months at its headquarters in the New Mexico desert.

The newest ship dubbed the VSS Imagine was designed and manufactured in California. Company officials say it will likely be summer before the ship begins glide flight testing at Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

CEO Michael Colglazier says the addition of the new ship Tuesday marks the beginning of a Virgin Galactic fleet that will ferry paying customers and scientific payloads to the fringe of space.

He said the company is still aiming for commercial operations in 2022.

Virgin Galactic has reached space twice before — the first time from California in December 2018. The company marked its second successful glide flight over Spaceport America last June.

Virgin Galactic is one of a few companies looking to cash in on customers with an interest in space. Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin launched a new capsule in January as part of test as it aims to get its program for tourists, scientists and professional astronauts off the ground.

The mirror-like finish on Virgin Galactic's new ship is as much about aesthetics as it is about function. A key part of the ship's thermal protection system, Colglazier said it also was chosen so the craft could take on the look and feel of its surroundings — whether it's on Earth, in the sky or in space.

The other task of the engineers was to create a new version that would be easier to manufacture and to maintain.

New Mexico Judge Delays Trial Over Jury Pool's Racial MakeupSanta Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

A New Mexico judge has postponed a jury trial for a man accused of rape after his attorney argued his client's right to a fair trial was violated because none of the potential jurors selected were Black.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that 25-year-old Maury Elliot is accused of raping two teens and a woman in separate attacks. Jury selection for one of the cases was scheduled to start Monday.

But Judge T. Glenn Ellington halted the trial after defense attorney Jennifer Burrill said none of the 77 potential jurors were Black. Assistant District Attorney Kent Wahlquist argued that the pool's racial makeup represents Santa Fe.

Under state law, defendants can challenge the racial makeup of jury pools but are also required to provide data showing the pool does not represent a fair cross section of the community.

Burrill said that data does not exist in New Mexico, citing U.S. Census data showing that 2.6% of the state population is Black and 1.2% of Santa Fe County's population is Black. But jury pools are chosen from a more specific category of the population among taxpayers, driver's license holders and registered voters.

Burrill said none of the three state agencies compiling information of those groups could produce statistics on race, making it impossible to determine if the jurors were proportionately represented.

Burrill said she thinks the Legislature needs to require officials to collect that data in the future and use it to help policymaking.

Las Cruces Lawyer Among President Biden's First 11 Judicial NomineesAssociated Press

President Joe Biden has announced his first slate of judicial nominees. The list released by the White House on Tuesday includes Black, Muslim and Asian American Pacific Islander candidates among the nine women and two men.

The nominees include Margaret Strickland for the U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico.

Strickland has been a partner at McGraw & Strickland LLC in Las Cruces, New Mexico, since 2011, representing clients in civil rights cases and criminal cases in state and federal courts in New Mexico.

Slain Colorado Officer Remembered For Service To Others - By Patty Nieberg And Colleen Slevin Report For America/Associated Press, Albuquerque Journal

Officer Eric Talley has been remembered as a man of faith who put others first, long before he was credited with saving lives in a shooting at a Colorado supermarket.

The Albuquerque Journal reported Talley was raised in Albuquerque and graduated from Highland High School.

Over 1,000 people gathered to honor Talley at a memorial service near Boulder on Tuesday. Speakers remembered the 51-year-old father of seven for helping someone with a flooded basement and collecting memorabilia for a boy with cancer who wanted "police stuff" for Christmas.

His police chief said Talley's personnel file was filled with thank you letters from people he had helped during his decade with the department. Besides Talley, nine others were killed in the March 22 shooting in Boulder.

New Mexico Lawmakers Begin Special Session - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are responding to the call of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to try and forge an agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana in a special legislative session.

Convening Tuesday, lawmakers took up deliberations of three bills that would set up a regulatory framework for marijuana sales, taxation, expungement of past convictions and spending on roadway safety.

Lujan Grisham has hailed the industry's potential to create jobs and a stable new source of revenue for the state. Proposed reforms would make cannabis consumption legal for adults 21 and over, with an initial excise tax on sales of 12% that would rise to 18% over time.

The spending bill ran into immediate resistance from lawmakers who said it was improper to bundle together expenses for marijuana policy reforms and the price tag for holding a special legislative session. It was put on hold pending negotiations.

Successful legislation in New Mexico would extend legal recreational cannabis sales across the American Southwest, mostly by direct ballot initiatives.

Deliberations among legislators began by videoconference, with only some lawmakers inside a Statehouse building that is closed to the public as a precaution against the coronavirus.

Outside, visiting tourist Dawn Plonkey of Arizona said she voted with the majority last year to legalize recreational marijuana in her home state in hopes of curbing the black market.

"I'm not a user but I felt that it was going to be something that could benefit the state," she said, comparing the criminalization of the drug to the failed 1920s prohibition of alcohol.

New Mexico doesn't allow legislation by ballot initiative, but voters last year ousted hardline opponents of recreational marijuana from the state Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth has vowed to bring legalization to the Senate floor for a vote, but time ran out during the annual 60-day legislative session that ended March 20.

Virginia and New York are also on the cusp of legalizing marijuana through the complex and conflictive legislative process.

New Mexico legislators in the Republican minority are calling the special session an inappropriate public expense in the midst of the pandemic — and an affront to Christians in the midst of Holy Week celebrations that precede Easter.

"The public has been locked out of the Capitol, Democratic leadership has not communicated with us, and I fear the output will be a rushed and problematic cannabis bill with dangerous, unintended consequences," Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said in a statement.

Earlier this year, Brandt helped advance a recreational pot bill from GOP Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell that emphasized low taxes and a simplified oversight.

On the opposite side of the capitol Tuesday, members of a Christian group opposed to marijuana legislation stood in a circle, held hands and prayed that the efforts would fail.

Organizer and faith newsletter publisher J.D. Vasquez said he doesn't believe legalization will eliminate the black market, and fears that the mainstreaming of marijuana is a risk to traditional Hispanic culture.

"We will have a pot shop after pot shop up and that economy will — as alcohol does now — it will suck the goodness out of those things, out of the family, out of relationships," Vazquez said. "We'll see people stoned on Sunday morning, rather than in the pews."

Disagreements about that bill and several competing proposals from Democrats were on prominent display during the regular legislative session.

New Mexico Lawmakers Reconvene To Consider Legalizing Pot – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

New Mexico lawmakers are responding to the call of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to try and forge an agreement on legalizing recreational marijuana in a special legislative session that convenes at noon on Tuesday.

Legalization has won state House approval for three consecutive years but failed to gain full approval, despite support from an array of proponents. Lujan Grisham has hailed the industry's potential to create jobs and a stable new source of revenue for the state.

Lawmakers are likely to bring forward two bills that provide a regulatory framework for the industry and focus secondly on social justice concerns, such as the expungement of past marijuana convictions and support for communities that have suffered from criminalization of marijuana and aggressive policing.

New Mexico doesn't allow legislation by ballot initiative, but voters last year ousted hardline opponents of recreational marijuana from the state Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth has vowed to bring legalization to the Senate floor for a vote, but time ran out during the annual 60-day legislative session that ended March 20.

Medical marijuana producers are divided over how to proceed amid calls for new opportunity and competition in the market. Many fear unlimited business licenses and wide-open competition would undermine stable retail prices, financial investments and stable employment.

New Mexico Eases Vaccination Process For Older Residents – Associated Press

New Mexico is trying to make it even easier for residents 75 and older to get vaccinated.

The state Health Department announced Monday that people in that age group will no longer need event codes in order to schedule appointments to get their COVID-19 vaccinations. Instead, those who are registered with the state will get invitations and will use their confirmation codes and dates of birth to schedule appointments.

In all, more than one-quarter of New Mexicans have been fully vaccinated. Just over 43% have received their first shots.

Under the state's vaccine distribution plan, health care workers, nursing home staff and residents, all New Mexicans 75 and older as well as those 60 and older with chronic health conditions are being prioritized. The state is aiming to open up eligibility later this spring as part of a push by the federal government to get more people vaccinated.

The Health Department said vaccination events are being scheduled at senior centers each week in one of the state's four quadrants. About 5,000 doses per week are distributed through those events.

Native American Health Clinics Offering Vaccine To Visitors – Morgan Lee, Associated Press

The Indian Health Service announced Monday that it is shifting its vaccine distribution system to target individual hospitals and clinics with high demand for shots and taper supplies to hubs where most eligible patients have received doses.

The U.S. agency is part of a two-pronged national effort to immunize Indigenous communities that also relies on state health agencies. Native Americans have been disproportionately sickened and killed by the pandemic, and are also now at the forefront of federal efforts to deploy vaccine shots in the United States.

Additionally, most Indian Health Service facilities are beginning to offer vaccines to the general population after successfully immunizing vulnerable tribal members. It's a push toward so-called herd immunity that still depends on development of a vaccine for children.

Older teenagers already are the focus of some vaccination efforts in scattered Native American communities.

The Indian Health Service has administered more than 940,000 total vaccine doses across the U.S. and plans to hit the million-dose mark before April.

Albuquerque Police: 1 Of 2 Missing Teenage Girls Found Safe – Associated Press

One of two teenage girls reported missing last weekend has been found safe, according to Albuquerque police.

They said 14-year-old Zuriah Castillo was located Tuesday, but the search continued for 16-year-old Jaylynn Miller.

The girls were reported missing Saturday and an Amber Alert was issued.

The alert was later changed to a missing endangered juvenile advisory after police interviewed a suspect who said he wasn't involved in the girls' disappearance and it was no longer believed the teens had been abducted.

Police didn't immediately disclose where Castillo was located.

According to investigators, the teens were in the Santo Domingo Pueblo area around 7 p.m. Saturday when they asked for a ride.

They were dropped off at an Albuquerque hotel.

Police initially believed that a man kidnapped them, but it's now believed he was an acquaintance giving them a ride.

New Mexico State Police said the alert was issued at the request of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

New Mexico Police: 2 Teens Not Abducted But Still Missing – Associated Press

Authorities are searching for two teenage girls last seen at an Albuquerque hotel.

New Mexico State Police said Monday they no longer believe the girls were abducted. They issued a revised Amber Alert characterizing 14-year-old Zuriah Castillo and 16-year-old Jaylynn Miller as missing.

According to investigators, the teens were in the Santo Domingo Pueblo area on Saturday shortly after 7 p.m. when they asked for a ride. They were dropped off at the Courtyard by Marriott.

Police initially believed that a man kidnapped them. But it's now believed he was an acquaintance giving them a ride.

Authorities say the girls may be in danger.

Castillo is described as 5-foot-5 and 130 pounds. She has bleach blonde and dark brown hair down to her shoulders and brown eyes.

Miller is described as 5 feet tall and 112 pounds. She has shoulder-length brown hair dyed red and brown eyes.

Both girls were last seen wearing similar outfits — a white V-neck shirt with black jeans.

State Police said the alert was issued at the request of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

New Mexico Sues US Over Proposed Nuclear Waste Storage Plans – Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is suing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission over concerns that the federal agency hasn’t done enough to vet plans for a multibillion-dollar facility to store spent nuclear fuel in the state. In a filing Monday, New Mexico says the project would endanger residents, the environment and the economy.

New Jersey-based Holtec International wants to build a complex in southeastern New Mexico where tons of spent fuel from commercial nuclear power plants around the nation could be stored until the federal government finds a permanent solution. State officials worry that New Mexico will become a permanent dumping ground for the radioactive material.

In the complaint filed in federal court the state cited the potential for surface and groundwater contamination, disruption of oil and gas development in one of the nation's most productive basins and added strain on emergency response resources.

The state also raised concerns about a similar project planned just across the state line in West Texas.

Security Fence, Cops, No Longer Encircle New Mexico Capitol – Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

Security fencing and state police checkpoints no longer encircle New Mexico state capitol buildings.

The added security was put in place after the Jan. 6 riots in Washington D.C. and cost at least $700,000.

In the past few weeks, the State Police and National Guard reduced their presence, with fewer checkpoints in the area around the capitol. The remaining security forces left abruptly at the conclusion of the regular legislative session on March 20.

Workers were seen Saturday taking down segments of the chain-link fence and loading them onto a trailer.

Legislators are set to convene this week to pass bills that would legalize recreational cannabis. The building is traditionally open to the public and lobbyists, however the capitol buildings that house legislative chambers will continue to be closed to the public due to the pandemic.

Navajo Nation: No COVID-19 Deaths For 2nd Consecutive Day – Associated Press

The Navajo Nation on Monday reported five new COVID-19 cases, but no additional deaths for the second consecutive day and fifth time in the last nine days.

Tribal health officials said the latest figures bring the total number of cases since the pandemic started to 30,064. The number of deaths remains 1,246.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher than reported because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The Navajo Nation reservation covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“Parts of the country are now seeing a rise in new COVID-19 infections due to increases in travel and some states lifting restrictions too soon. Here on the Navajo Nation, we have a ‘safer at home’ order in place," Navajo President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

“We continue to require masks to be worn in public, no in-door dining at restaurants and no in-person gatherings of more than 10 people. We are doing everything we can to help reduce the number of new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths," Nez added. “Personal responsibility is key to fighting this pandemic.”