New Mexico moves to restart visits at long-term care sites

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico plans to gradually restore visiting opportunities with residents of some nursing homes and other long-term care facilities by arranging outdoor or open-window meetings, the governor announced Thursday.

Face masks and Plexiglas dividers will still be used out of an abundance of caution to guard against transmission of COVID-19 at the long-term care facilities.

The initiative will begin next week in a handful of counties with relatively low rates of positive testing for the coronavirus.

At a video news conference, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials said social isolation is taking a toll on elderly and disabled people. In-person visits have been limited to hospice care patients for months.

The governor invoked her own frustrations and despair in trying to maintain contact with her mother at a nursing home in Albuquerque.

A surge of virus infections and related deaths in New Mexico appears to be tapering off, and the governor was generally complimentary about compliance with state health orders that include mandatory wearing of face masks and a ban on public gatherings of more than four people.

“We're seeing good trends, case counts coming down consistently,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said.

The governor also provided two new exceptions to self-quarantine requirements for travelers entering or returning to the state, as health officials try to keep outside coronavirus outbreaks at bay.

People seeking medical care or taking day trips to attend to essential parenting duties will no longer be subject to 14-day self-quarantine requirements.

The new executive order from Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, extends the requirement that travelers self-isolate at a residence or lodging facility upon arrival or return to New Mexico — with broad exceptions for workers in essential businesses, federal government and airline industry.

State health officials are wrestling with how to insulate New Mexico from neighboring states with lighter public health restrictions and uncontained virus outbreaks. The order allows the state to impose quarantines on people who don't comply, though it was unclear if or when authorities might begin enforcement.

“Individuals who are quarantined upon arrival into the state may leave the residence or place of lodging in which they are self-quarantining only for the purposes of medical care,” the governor's office announced.

The new order responds to “the absence of a coherent federal strategy to slowing the spread of COVID-19," the governor's office said.

Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce accused the governor of mismanaging a “shattered” economy. “Closed businesses, a state budget drowning in red ink — these are the true vestiges of the governor’s poor leadership,” he said in a news release.

Self-quarantine restrictions apply for the duration of New Mexico's public health emergency. The state has delayed any further reopening of the economy until at least September.

The rate of positive tests is far lower in New Mexico than neighboring Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma.

On Thursday, New Mexico health officials said there were 212 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the state total to 21,773. Officials said two more people have died from the virus, bringing the state death total to 669.

As of Thursday, there were 138 individuals hospitalized in New Mexico for COVID-19.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases decreased over the past two weeks, going from 286 new cases a day on July 22 to 221 new cases a day on Wednesday, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.

Comparing seven-day averages of new cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in test results. The full number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

Average statewide daily deaths have declined from 5.3 to 4.6 over the same period.

In other developments:

— A state agency reported that 21 employees at a meatpacking plant in Roswell tested positive for COVID-19.

The New Mexico Environment Department has advised USA Beef Packing LLC owner Jose Madrid on how to handle the cases, the Roswell Daily Record reported. Madrid said he is cooperating with a state investigation into what caused the infection to spread.

Agency reports show the company reported its first positive test on July 28, and it had two by July 31. The number of cases jumped to 21 by Wednesday.

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Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report. He is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues.