Local distilleries forge ahead with hand sanitizer production, despite confusing regulations

Matt Simonds is doing his part to help stem the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico, but the federal government isn’t making it easy for him. Simonds, who owns Broken Trail Distillery and Brewery in Albuquerque, told NM Political Report he put his distillery to work making hand sanitizer weeks ago, as national shortages left first responders, law enforcement agencies, essential workers and medical professionals unable to access the virus-killing product. “Everything started with about a thousand 2-ounce containers that we were giving away for free. Shortly thereafter, we were able to get the Fire Department and the Police Department here in Albuquerque almost 200 gallons,” Simonds said. “We created a partnership with Troubled Minds Distilling here in Albuquerque, which is part of Tractor Brewing Company.

COVID-19 cases jump to 495, state reports 3 new deaths

New Mexico now has 495 cases of COVID-19, after the state Department of Health announced 92 new cases on Friday. The DOH also said 3 new individuals with COVID-19 have died, bringing the amount of people who have died to ten. Thirty-four individuals who had COVID-19 have now recovered, the state said. 

DOH said 41 individuals with the disease total are now hospitalized, and 18 are on ventilators. Those who are hospitalized include those who tested positive in other states but are hospitalized in New Mexico, but not those who tested positive in New Mexico and are now hospitalized in other states. DOH has identified an outbreak of COVID-19 at the La Vida Llena long-term care facility in Albuquerque.

Antibody testing could be more effective at tracking COVID-19, says former CDC official

A different type of test than what is now being widely used could be more useful for tracking the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S, according to a former U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization official. Currently, health officials are relying on one type of test, called PCR tests, to determine whether an individual is infected with the novel coronavirus known as SARS-COV-2, which causes COVID-19 in humans. Public health officials are then using that information to conduct an investigation in hopes of piecing together who else might have it, and who may need to be tested for it and self-isolate. But Dr. Murray Cohen, a retired infectious disease expert at both the CDC and the WHO, told NM Political Report that the current COVID-19 tests are more useful in a clinical setting for doctors trying to diagnose a sick patient and suggested a different type of test that would help public health officials who are trying to understand the extent of the outbreak. 

Limits of the diagnostic PCR test

The United States’ COVID-19 test uses what’s called polymerase chain reaction, also known as a PCR, to detect the presence of viral genetic material. Here’s how the process works in New Mexico: a trained technician or physician collects samples from the patient, either by swabbing in the nasal cavity or down the throat.

PRC OKs PNM’s San Juan Generating Station exit

The Public Regulation Commission voted unanimously Wednesday to approve PNM’s application for abandoning the San Juan Generating Station and using securitization bonds to recover some of the investment PNM will lose in the process. The decision, which was widely expected, came after the state Supreme Court ordered the PRC to apply law changes made by the Energy Transition Act towards PNM’s exit of the coal-fired plant. The ETA, which requires all the state’s utilities to transition to “net zero” electricity generation by 2050, enabled PNM to use securitization as a mechanism to help pay for its transition away from coal. But PRC commissioners were previously hesitant to apply the new law to PNM’s plans for exiting the San Juan Generating Station. PNM announced its plan to close the plant in 2017, but didn’t submit the application to do so until after the ETA was in effect. 

RELATED: Natural gas will play a big role in state’s energy transition

The PRC’s decision was widely lauded by a coalition of clean energy and environmental justice advocates who say the securitization will reduce customers’ utility bills, provide financial support to the coal-dependent communities in San Juan County, and help create new clean energy jobs.

DOH: One new COVID-19 death, 17 new positive COVID-19 tests. State total at 208

The state Department of Health announced Saturday afternoon there are 17 new cases of COVID-19, a disease caused by a coronavirus, in the state. The new cases bring the state’s total to 208 cases. Update (3/29): NM reports 29 new cases of COVID-19

The DOH also announced a second death related to COVID-19. A male in his 80s located in Bernalillo County, passed away Friday, March 27, after being hospitalized. The individual had multiple chronic underlying health conditions.

Department of Health launches online portal for COVID-19 test results

The New Mexico Department of Health announced Saturday the launch of two new online tools for New Mexicans to use during the COVID-19 outbreak. Individuals who have already been tested can check for their results online by using the new portal and creating an account. Users will need to provide their name, date of birth and the date of sample collection to receive results. If test results are not yet available, the portal will indicate that they are pending. If test results are available, a person will be required to provide an email address and contact information and to create a password in order to access their information.

Critics question EPA decision to not enforce some regulations

Environmental groups and conservation advocates are reeling after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it will no longer enforce some of its regulations during the coronavirus pandemic. The EPA issued Wednesday a “temporary policy” regarding enforcement of environmental legal obligations during the pandemic that applies to civil violations “during the COVID-19 outbreak.” The enforcement policy is back-dated to March 13. The EPA said during the pandemic that it won’t enforce noncompliance of routine monitoring, reporting obligations and other regulations but said it “expects regulated facilities to comply with regulatory requirements, where reasonably practicable, and to return to compliance as quickly as possible.” The policy has no end date. “EPA is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID-19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements,” said EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler, in a statement. “This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.”

The rule change comes after an industry group called for leniency in compliance during this time.

Public schools closed to in-person instruction for the remainder of the academic year

Public school closures will continue through the end of the academic year, the state Public Education Department said during a press conference Friday morning. The closures are in response to the coronavirus pandemic. PED Secretary Ryan Stewart said the decision to extend the closures was a difficult one to make. “Ever since we had to announce the temporary closure a few weeks ago, we were hoping that we’d see clear signs that we’d get the all safe to return, and that we’d be able to resume operations on April 6,” Stewart said. “We still have many cases going across New Mexico, including some evidence of community spread.

Taos-area business owner launches COVID-19 resources app

A business owner in the Taos Ski Valley converted a booking app into a COVID-19 resources tool for the community around Taos. Alyson Hyder, who runs a bed and breakfast in the Taos Ski Valley, told NM Political Report she wanted to put her booking app, called Travel Taos, to good use while the region’s tourism industry has ground to a halt amid the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s not cheap, it’s an expensive piece of software. [And] it’s not being used,” Hyder said. “I built it to support my booking business, but when I realized no one’s going to be traveling, I might as well use it.”

Under normal conditions, the app is part of an online booking engine business that Hyder has built, BookTaos.com.

BLM grapples with public participation amid coronavirus pandemic, while some call for lease sales to be postponed

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management scrambled this week to make temporary changes to its lease sale rules in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, while some groups have called for the BLM to halt lease auctions all together until oil prices have rebounded. The BLM opened a 10-day protest period March 23 for a lease sale of 45,446 acres of public land in New Mexico that’s scheduled for May of 2020. The protest period is the third and final public comment opportunity in the BLM’s lease sale process. While the department is able to accept public comments electronically during the scoping process and after the release of the draft environmental assessment (EA) for a lease sale, BLM typically requires protests to be either hand-delivered or sent by certified mail to the BLM state office in Santa Fe. On Monday, the first day of the protest period, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a stay-at-home order for the state, which instructed residents to only leave the house for essential outings.