The Senate Finance Committee tabled a bill request to spend $335 million of the $1.1 billion in America Rescue Plan Act money to the state on public health issues on a 6 to 1 vote, but committee members advised the bill sponsors to bring the bill back to the regular session. Sponsored by state Sen. Gerald Ortiz y Pino, D-Albuquerque, the bill, SB 9, would establish a school of public health at the University of New Mexico by appropriating $50 million to the UNM Board of Regents to build a school of public health facility at the UNM Health Sciences Center on campus. State Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, who is a co-sponsor, said a “center of excellence” school of public health would attract top researchers who would bring grant money with them and that, with student enrollment, would largely enable the school to pay for itself. Other money would go to pay for equipment to help with cancer treatment; expand behavioral health services statewide, expand nursing faculty and pay for the salaries and operational budget of the projected school of public health. An additional $10 million would go to the Department of Health to work with UNM on providing obstetric care in Las Vegas and Gallup.
Beginning on Monday, April 5, all New Mexicans over the age of 16 will be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, entering the “phase 2” of the state’s vaccine distribution plan. This comes as New Mexico remains the leader on COVID-19 vaccine administration. As of Tuesday’s vaccination numbers, 44.2 percent of New Mexicans aged 16 or older have received at least one dose and 27.3 percent are fully vaccinated (either with the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine or both shots of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines). Even so, the state will continue to prioritize those in phases 1A, New Mexicans age 75 or older and those age 60 or older with a chronic condition. “President [Joe] Biden directed states to make all adults eligible for vaccine by May 1.
The New Mexico Ethics Commission effectively dismissed a complaint filed by a state cabinet secretary against a state senator.
In a letter to New Mexico Department of Health Secretary Tracie Collins, the commission’s executive director Jeremy Farris wrote that the commission would not consider Collins’ complaint against Democratic Sen. Jacob Candelaria of Albuquerque as the issue is out of the purview of the Ethics Commission. According to Farris’ letter, Collins accused Candelaria of violating the state’s Governmental Conduct Act “by voting on a bill that clearly affected the outcome of a litigation matter concerning [Candelaria]’s client, and filed by [Candelaria].”
The bill in question was SB 340, a failed proposal in the regular legislative session that aimed to limit medical cannabis reciprocity. The client in question is medical cannabis producer Ultra Health, which has taken the department to court numerous times and is currently suing the state over medical cannabis plant limits. The latest suit from Ultra Health also accuses the department’s former secretary of discriminating against the medical cannabis producer.
But the litigation Collins mentioned in her complaint against Candelaria is a suit from Ultra Health that alleged the Department of Health erroneously implemented an emergency rule to limit medical cannabis reciprocity. In 2019, the Legislature passed a law that allowed registered medical cannabis patients from other states to purchase, use and possess medical cannabis in New Mexico.
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.
Health officials spoke on Wednesday during a press conference about the rollout of the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, a new emphasis on certain areas of the state for new doses and even the decision by Texas’ governor to end that state’s mask mandate and capacity restrictions. This came ahead of the state announcing 359 new cases of COVID-19 and thirteen additional deaths related to the disease. Nearly 40 of the new cases, 37, were among inmates of the Lea County Correctional Facility, which has seen hundreds of new cases in the last few days. Department of Health Secretary Tracie Collins said the state received 17,200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, but would receive few, if any, vaccines in the coming weeks until the company can manufacture more doses. While she did not have the names of the counties available immediately, she said that the vaccines would be sent to ten counties with low vaccine coverage and high ratings on the CDC’s Social Vulnerability Index.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and top state health officials had optimistic news related to the state’s COVID-19 response and vaccine distribution, during a remote press conference on Thursday. The press conference came just a day after the state eased restrictions for counties in the yellow and green levels as well as adding another level, turquoise, which would allow even less restrictive COVID rules. Related: State updates ‘Red-to-Green’ framework, including adding a ‘Turquoise’ level
“We are on the road to recovery,” Lujan Grisham said in a press conference on Thursday. “And this is exactly where we deserve to be, given our hard work.”
The state also recently celebrated administering 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine and remains one of the highest performing states in the nation when it comes to administering COVID-19. The average number of daily cases continues to fall, though a health official cautioned that reopening could cause that decrease to slow down.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday she would veto legislation that would curb the power of the executive branch over extending public health orders. “In their current context, yes,” she said when asked whether she would veto such a bill. That’s not to say governors should be “omnipotent,” Lujan Grisham. “That’s why you have three branches of government. That’s why you have elections.
State health officials continued to express optimism over the trend of COVID-19 and vaccinations in the state, announcing that the state had administered over 450,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, including nearly 145,000 who have received both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. The vaccination rate of 7 percent, Department of Health Secretary-designate Dr. Tracie Collins said, was the third-highest of any state in the country. It is also double the state’s rate from two weeks ago. “We’re focusing on vulnerable populations and communities moving forward,” Collins said. The state is still vaccinating those in the 1A and first two subphases of 1B groups, with an emphasis on those in 1A.
COVID-19 related restrictions will be eased in many parts of the state, as the number of cases continues to drop, with more than half of all counties improving out of the “red” level of restrictions. Additionally, the state announced that it would no longer require a self-quarantine for those who visit New Mexico from “high-risk” states, but will still strongly advise those who arrive from states with a five percent positivity rate or a positive test rate of over 80 people per 1 million residents. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and two cabinet officials spoke about the positive news in a press conference on Wednesday. “It’s always more fun to do these press conferences when the news is good and the news remains good,” state Human Services Department Secretary Dr. David Scrase said. “I’m very excited about our progress, you should be too,” Lujan Grisham said.