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Governor praises health care workers as she further lifts COVID-19 protections

Explosion of cases at schools ‘inevitable’ as districts move away from masking, advocate says
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, seen at a news conference June 27 in Santa Fe, praised health care workers at an event Tuesday for their efforts to save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Morgan Lee/Associated Press file)

At an awards ceremony for health care workers at a high-end hotel with a cocktail dress code on Tuesday night, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham praised their collective effort to save lives from COVID-19.

“We stood up testing. We stood up vaccinations. We stood it all up. Nobody pointed at one other group and said, ‘Your job there,’ ‘Your job, something else.’ It was all a collective,” Lujan Grisham said. “In fact, to the best of my knowledge, we’re the only state that responded in that collective that held together – even when, frankly, we were too exhausted to hold it together.”

Inside the Grand Ballroom at the Clyde Hotel in downtown Albuquerque, Lujan Grisham’s Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said she has really high standards and demanded excellence from health officials.

“She wanted not to just be No. 1, but she was possessed with saving lives and us doing everything we possibly could to save lives,” Scrase said. “I’m really grateful to the governor for setting those standards and driving us to them.”

Deputy Health Secretary and acting State Epidemiologist Dr. Laura Parajon said Lujan Grisham comforted health officials and gave them a way forward during the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early days.

“She made it super clear to us that her mission was to protect New Mexicans,” Parajon said. “And she courageously put politics aside and did everything she could to safeguard the lives of New Mexicans.”

The comments from Lujan Grisham and Health Department officials bookended the presentation of awards to 15 people for actions they took to save lives during the pandemic so far.

Masks were not required at the event but were subtly encouraged (a pack of KN95s was left at each table). There were no checks for vaccination status.

The room was well-ventilated throughout the event, according to a CO2 monitor Source New Mexico brought inside.

Lujan Grisham, who said she was suffering from a “bum knee” that gave out minutes before her speech, is seeking to portray herself as “the health care candidate” in her re-election bid.

In a campaign ad broadcast Wednesday, Albuquerque endocrinologist Dr. Christina Lovato said Lujan Grisham has saved thousands of lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, capped insulin costs, ended mental health copays and is working to import lower cost medicine from Canada.

Policy not stopping the spread

The awards ceremony came six days after the first day of the fall semester for New Mexico students and four days after the public education system further lifted COVID-19 protections following the lead of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Under the New Mexico public health order signed on Aug. 12, school districts and charter schools are no longer required to report staff surveillance testing data through the Department of Health Provider Portal for COVID-19; social distancing is recommended but not required; and school districts are no longer required to participate in the Test to Stay program.

DOH Infectious Disease Bureau Director Dr. Miranda Durham said while vaccinations are saving lives, “they don’t necessarily get rid of cases.”

New Mexico has done awesome with vaccines, she said, but “we do lag with boosters, across all age groups.”

As of Tuesday, 72% of eligible New Mexican adults had received a booster shot, 31% of New Mexican children had completed their primary series, and only 6% of the youngest children had gotten their first dose, according to DOH.

“Our kids are going back to school, and there’s no masking anymore in schools,” Durham said. “This is, I think, a really at-risk population.”

In new guidance for schools, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking in schools, early care and education programs in communities at a high “COVID-19 community level.” Regardless of level, the CDC recommends masking in all health care settings, including school nurses’ offices.

As of Wednesday, that included Bernalillo, Sandoval, Valencia, Cibola, McKinley, De Baca, Roosevelt, Curry, Quay, Grant and Hidalgo counties. Together, those counties account for more than half of the state’s population.

Under the CDC’s previous “community transmission level” map, the CDC would have recommended universal indoor masking in every county in New Mexico other than Harding.

The first day of school for students was Aug. 10. The New Mexico Public Education Department said in an Aug. 12 news release it is working on an updated tool kit to align with the CDC guidance and the new health order.

No local government or school district in New Mexico has implemented its own local mask mandate.

That’s because the federal government sets the tone for state and local governments, said Kristin Urquiza, founder of Marked by COVID, a survivors’ advocacy network. Both the Trump and Biden administrations have set the tone for the rest of the country, she said.

“I do think there’s culpability throughout the chain,” she said. “Ultimately, the fish rots from the head.”

Right now, the tone is “COVID is over,” Urquiza said, despite the fact that we are in a deadly surge where about 500 people in the U.S. are dying each day, according to The New York Times.

“Two years ago – a year ago – this would not have been acceptable,” she said. “It’s still not acceptable, and we should not be normalizing this amount of death, as well as disability.”

That tone was palpable at the awards ceremony. Speakers repeatedly referred to the pandemic in past tense, and the event’s emcee Pamela Blackwell, director of government relations and communications for the New Mexico Hospital Association, said we are entering “a new phase of this uncharted journey.”

Scrase’s final remark in his acceptance speech was that every single person who did anything to reduce the spread of COVID-19 has helped to save lives.

But Urquiza said the CDC’s COVID-19 guidance continues to walk back protections to control the spread. The guidance is not informed by data showing the importance of protecting the lives of people who are at higher risk of severe or fatal COVID-19, Urquiza said, including elderly, immunocompromised and medically vulnerable people.

The federal government’s vaccine and treatment plan cuts those communities out of the equation, she said, because it doesn’t address keeping transmission rates low. For those individuals, it’s more probable that if they contract COVID-19, they would have a more severe case, irrespective of vaccination status or what treatments are available to them, she said.

People living with chronic illness also fall into the category of those who are at high risk of severe COVID-19, Urquiza said, and the recommendations from the Biden administration and the CDC “really ignore the needs of those individuals.”

“Teachers, administrators, parents, school nurses, are terrified of what’s about to happen as schools are reopening,” she said. “School nurses will be on the front lines of the explosion of cases that they will inevitably see as a result of school districts moving further and further away from masking, given these CDC guidelines.”

For more stories from SourceNM, visit sourcenm.com.