WED: APS Aims To Vaccinate 20,000 Students, Groups Seek More Protection For Chaco, + More

Apr 14, 2021


New Mexico School District Wants 20,000 Youth Vaccinated - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

Albuquerque Public Schools is ramping up its efforts to get vaccines to students.

Operations chief Gabriella Duran Blakey says 50 students were included in a vaccine clinic Wednesday as part of a partnership between the school district and city health workers.

Next week, the school district says it will aim the power of its mailing lists and social media at students to encourage them to register for the vaccines being offered in New Mexico.

As soon as next Wednesday, students could be eligible for vaccine clinics aimed specifically at them. Parents are required to attend in order to sign release forms.

Albuquerque Public Schools is one of the largest school districts in the country and covers more than one in five K-12 students in New Mexico.

The vaccination effort follows a push to get educators vaccinated last month. Blakey says around 15% of Albuquerque Public Schools staff declined the vaccines while 85% have received one.

"We didn't think we'd be at this point. We're really lucky in New Mexico that we have this opportunity to have vaccines for our community, including our youth," she said.

Eldorado High School was closed to in-person learning on Tuesday following four positive COVID-19 tests, the first to be ordered closed since April 6, when the vast majority of New Mexico's schools opened to in-person learning full-time.

Three more schools announced voluntary closures Wednesday, in Bloomfield and Socorro, after outbreaks that would have required widespread quarantines.

The end of the school year is fast approaching. Many students who attend in person this school year will only have been in the physical classroom for about a month.

A more COVID-19-immune student population could increase the viability of graduation celebrations, extended learning programs and summer school.

Blakey said that it's important for all community members to get vaccinated and build herd immunity. She said she hopes students will get themselves protection from the virus for whatever plans they have, from working a summer job to going off to college in the fall.

While some experts suggest that herd immunity is reached when around 70% of people have built up natural antibodies or been vaccinated, there is no universally accepted rate.

Groups Take Aim At New Mexico Drilling Plan Amid US Review - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Environmentalists and Native American activists say the Biden administration's review of the federal oil and gas leasing program should result in more protections for an area of northwestern New Mexico that's considered sacred.

The fight over drilling on federal land bordering Chaco Culture National Historical Park has spanned multiple presidencies, and an effort to update the area's management plan remains unfinished after years.

The activists held a virtual gathering Wednesday as the comment period is about to close on the administration's leasing review. The coalition said U.S. officials need to do more than just check boxes and instead engage in meaningful consultation with tribes and other groups.

They warn increased oil and gas development has the potential to destroy parts of the landscape outside the park that could provide a better understanding of the ancient civilization that once inhabited the region.

They also cited concerns about air pollution from venting and flaring at natural gas collection and processing sites, wastewater leaks and unchecked development in southeastern New Mexico.

During the Obama administration, the Bureau of Indian Affairs for the first time joined federal land managers in planning how to manage resources. And following a visit by Interior Secretary David Bernhardt during the Trump administration, oil and gas leasing within a certain distance of the park was put on hold.

Legislation pending in Congress would formalize the buffer zone around the park, but even some tribes have disagreed over how big it should be.

Much of the land surrounding the park belongs to the Navajo Nation or is owned by individual Navajos. While the legislation would not affect tribal lands, some are concerned they would be landlocked and lose out on leasing revenue and royalties.

Meanwhile, leaders with New Mexico's pueblo communities say the region provides a spiritual connection to their ancestors. They have been pushing for a drilling moratorium and have expressed more optimism in recent weeks with Deb Haaland — a member of Laguna Pueblo — becoming the first Native American to lead the U.S. Interior Department.

There has been no indication of whether the agency intends to reconsider previous recommendations regarding the area's management plan or if Haaland would consider other actions related to the buffer zone around the park.

Julia Bernal, director of the Pueblo Action Alliance, said the tribal perspective should be included in the planning process because "the Indigenous nations in New Mexico have a large stake in how our water and land is managed."

Members of the coalition also called out New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's administration and the Democratic-led Legislature, saying elected leaders across the state have benefited from campaign donations made by the oil and gas industry. They also criticized Lujan Grisham for seeking to offset any economic losses from Biden's directives.

Red States On U.S. Electoral Map Lagging On Vaccinations - By Russ Bynum, Associated Press

A look at which U.S. states are leading at vaccinating against the coronavirus and which states are struggling is beginning to resemble America's electoral map.

Vaccination numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show states that tend to vote Democratic at the top in terms of the percentage of their adult population that have received at least one shot.

Out in front is New Hampshire, where 65% of the population age 18 and older has received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Following close behind are New Mexico, Connecticut, Maine and Massachusetts at 55% or greater.

At the bottom are five Republican-leaning states, including Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

A poll by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in late March found that Republicans were three times as likely as Democrats to say they will probably or definitely not get vaccinated.

The CDC reports that nearly 121 million American adults — or 47% of the U.S. adult population — have received at least one coronavirus shot. California, the nation's largest blue state, is slightly ahead of that pace, at 50%. The biggest red state, Texas, lags at less than 44%.

How swiftly states are vaccinating doesn't always correlate with how they vote.

Deeply red South Dakota ranks among the most successful states, with 54% of its population getting injections. Among blue states, Nevada lags furthest behind the U.S. at less than 44%, followed by Oregon and Michigan at 45% each.

New Hampshire, which leads the nation in adult vaccinations, has a Republican governor and a GOP-controlled Legislature. However, Democrats hold all of its seats in Congress and the state has consistently Democratic in every presidential election since 2008.

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.

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.

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

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's political committee has paid at least $62,500 to settle allegations by a former campaign employee who says he was sexually harassed by the governor, according to campaign finance filings and the governor's re-election campaign spokesman.

Campaign finance records obtained Tuesday show that Lujan Grisham's campaign committee paid $62,500 in five monthly installments to a law firm representing James Hallinan. 

Hallinan, who worked as a spokesman for Lujan Grisham's 2018 campaign for governor, has accused her of dropping water on his crotch and then grabbing his crotch in the midst of the campaign staff meeting. 

Lujan Grisham campaign spokesman Jared Leopold confirmed Tuesday the payments were linked to a settlement to resolve "dubious and disputed" potential claims by Hallinan and avoid the distraction and cost of litigation. 

Leopold said in an email that the governor, her campaign organization and a state-employed adviser "deny that there is any merit or truth to Mr. Hallinan's claims."

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.

The first payment to Hallinan's legal counsel dates back to November 2020, when Lujan Grisham was in open contention for a possible Cabinet position with the administration of President Joe Biden.

It is unclear whether Hallinan's harassment accusations ever were independently vetted.

The incident allegedly took place at the home of state Rep. Deborah Armstrong, a former campaign treasurer and private business partner to Lujan Grisham. Armstrong has said she never witnessed anything inappropriate.

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

Sackett offered no response when asked whether the governor has been the focus of any other accusations of harassment or misconduct or participated in any other financial settlements or nondisclosure agreements. Leopold said there are no other cases.

They declined to say whether further payment is still due to Hallinan.

Navajo Nation Reports No COVID-19 Deaths For 3rd Day In RowAssociated 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 Monday. 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 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.

Farmington Man Surprised He Faces Charges In Capitol Riot KOB-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.

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.