Shortly before noon on March 11, 2020, the New Mexico Department of Health announced a public health emergency for the growing spread of COVID-19. The same day, the World Health Organization declared the outbreak a pandemic.
In New Mexico, the governor and health officials held an in-person press conference in the Roundhouse, with reporters in the room.
“If you are sick, stay home. Wash your hands, use antibacterial [soap],” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said. “Minimize your contact and exposure to other individuals.”
It was the first time officials gave the advice that they would give numerous times over the coming year.
Earlier that day, DOH reported the first three confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state (and would announce a fourth later in the day). Since then, the state has reported nearly 187,500 confirmed cases of the disease and 3,839 deaths related to the disease.
While this was the first time many New Mexicans were aware of the danger the disease posed to residents, the state had been preparing.
On February 27, 2020, the Human Services Department sent out a department-wide email about the disease, weeks ahead of the first confirmed case in the state.
It noted that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had announced the novel coronavirus was “expected to impact the United States in a more severe way than it has to date” and that they had found community spread of the disease.
It also showed the early understanding of the virus and what precautions to take, which in retrospect are much more lax than those advised now.
The department advised employees “to use an Elbow Bump when you meet up with a colleague, customer, or friend that typically involves some form of physical contact.” They advised this over handshakes, high fives or even fist bumps.
The heightened precautions were based on what state health officials knew about respiratory illnesses in general, not COVID-19 in particular.
“The only early thing we could do would be to try to reduce human to human contact as much as possible, if you remember, the jury was out or whether masks were effective,” Human Services Department Dr. David Scrase said.
The state of New Mexico did not impose a mask mandate until May 16, 2020, but had recommended masks for weeks earlier. The CDC also has, for months now, recommended that everyone wear masks.
But the state banned gatherings of 100 or more people on March 12 to reduce person-to-person contact. In the coming weeks, that would be reduced further, to five people.
The state was constantly tinkering and changing its public health orders based on new evidence on how the new virus behaved and spread.
Last March, the state set up its Medical Advisory Team (MAT) to analyze academic literature related to the disease and make suggestions to the governor and health officials.
Now, a year after the first test positive case in New Mexico, the biggest news is the number of those vaccinated. In all, 706,940 people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and 15.1 percent of the age 16 or older population have received the full series of vaccinations (either two shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines or the single shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine).
On Monday, the state announced that schools would return to full in-person learning in early April. Teachers and other school staff are now eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations.
NM Political Report spoke to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, Secretary of Health Dr. Tracie Collins and Secretary of Human Services Dr. David Scrase about the year of COVID-19 in New Mexico.
“I knew it was coming,” Lujan Grisham said, citing news that the virus was spreading in China.
“In real time, by the news, there is no way this doesn’t become a full blown pandemic,” she recalled thinking.
The governor brought together the state Department of Health and the Human Services Department to prepare for the disease, and she said the state was ready, while the federal government wasn’t.
New Mexico was quick to take action.
The state Public Education Department shut down in-person learning on March 12. While some students have been part of hybrid learning, with part-time in-person learning and part-time online learning, full in-person learning won’t return until April 5.
The state quickly partnered with the private TriCore Reference Laboratories for COVID-19 testing, previewing the state’s emphasis on testing for the disease.
Within days, the state ordered restrictions on the capacity in restaurants and bars.
Meanwhile, the state didn’t find much aid from the federal government. Lujan Grisham outlined one example, when some New Mexico residents were stuck on a cruise ship. Then-President Donald Trump said he wanted to keep those on the cruise ship offshore to avoid adding to the confirmed cases among Americans.
She said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued “odd” communications around the issue.
“Long story short, frankly, you were on your own if you wanted the New Mexicans back and they wanted to come back,” she said.
The state had to set up new systems to “figure out ways to pay for flights, to send private planes,” deal with medicine and even with an assistance dog for a person on the cruise ship.
In the early days, she said members of the governor’s office were working 22-hour shifts, for over a week in a row.
Secretary of Health Tracie Collins was in a different position a year ago. At the time, she was the dean of the College of Population Health at the University of New Mexico, which focuses on the partnership between public health and healthcare delivery.
Scrase said he was most proud of the state’s vaccine distribution, which has ranked at or near the top of all states in the nation consistently for weeks.
“I think it’s much easier for me to highlight, as the number one accomplishment, something that we’re doing to prevent disease, rather than combat it, because I think that’s the ultimate solution,” Scrase said.
Collins agreed that the state was moving in the right direction when it came to vaccines.
“With the amount of vaccine we’ve received, I think we’ve done the best we can with getting it rolled out to the priority groups to reduce morbidity and mortality,” she said.
Lujan Grisham said that one thing she wishes they could have improved on was more cohesive communication on the crisis.
“I would get New Mexicans on the Texas border counties who said, ‘Well, you know, Texas can deal with different and they don’t think this is happening, why do you?’ or ‘Colorado is doing more than you are, why not you?’”
A look forward
While things are improving over the infection peaks in the winter, New Mexico is not out of the woods.
But all three officials expressed optimism.
If the state continues its vaccine progress and there are no new variants that “escape the effectiveness of the vaccine,” Scrase said he believes the state could have “an all green or almost all green and turquoise map” by the summer. As of Wednesday, the state had seven counties in the turquoise level (those counties which had been in the green level for two consecutive two-week periods) and another seven counties in the green level (counties with a test positivity rate of 5 percent or below and an average daily case rate of 8 per 100,00 residents or fewer in a two-week period).
Collins agreed that, in the months ahead, if vaccinations continue apace, the state could be in a good position.
“I think that we could start seeing more activity among people feeling a bit more relaxed, having a chance to do a bit more to socialize, and really begin to move towards a new normal, is what I see in about six months,” she said.
Beyond that, all three also spoke about the need for more resources for public health.
“I’m dedicated to making sure that the state does everything it can, after the acute emergency, that we do good public health investments and we really work to make sure that New Mexicans feel like we emphasize and understand their sacrifices,” Lujan Grisham said. “And we’re going to work diligently to support them.”
“One mistake I think the state made was that clear, chronic underinvestment in information systems, particularly in the Department of Health,” Scrase said. “And a clear, chronic underinvestment, in just public health. That department had been reduced in size, prior to 2019. And there have been multiple, multiple upgrades to the epidemiologic surveillance system that have been passed over.”
Collins spoke about how her experience at UNM affected her thoughts on what’s needed in the state.
“Bringing that perspective into this pandemic, brings this lens on equity, and understanding that there is structural racism in the country, and that some of the hardest hit communities by COVID, it’s a reflection of what has been going on in our country for way too long,” she said. “And it’s time to correct that.”