Home News COVID-19 Situation State meets reopening criteria, officials say

State meets reopening criteria, officials say

Dr. David Scrase, Secretary of Human Services, says the state has “room to do a little bit more reopening” now that it has met all eight gating criteria. He is seen during an Aug. 6 news conference in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore Photo/ Albuquerque Journal)

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Public health leaders say state still needs to move slowly

The COVID-19 gating criteria used by New Mexico public health officials indicates that the spread of coronavirus is being contained and the state health system has capacity to handle COVID-19 cases, but state officials say that still doesn’t mean that public health orders will change drastically any time soon.

The current health orders that contain numerous restrictions, including limits on store occupancy and crowd sizes and prohibitions on indoor service at restaurants, are due to expire Aug. 30. Yet the state’s top public health officials are saying that the state must “move slowly” to reopen activities, businesses, schools, buildings and public areas.

Dr. David Scrase, Secretary of the New Mexico Human Services Department, and state epidemiologist Dr. Chad Smelser with the New Mexico Department of Health took to an online forum Thursday to explain the eight gating criteria and how some of the measurements are calculated. The webinar is posted on YouTube.

As part of their presentation, they confirmed that New Mexico is now in the “green” on all eight measurements used as gating criteria for reopening the state and its economy.

“We are official. We have met the gating criteria,” Scrase said. “We believe at 168 cases a day, and if we can sustain the 168 cases a day, we have room to do a little bit more reopening, and I want to emphasize a little bit.”

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The number of daily cases, determined as a seven-day rolling average, is only one of the criteria now used. The other seven cover tests performed, positivity rates, the efficiency of contacting COVID-19 patients and their contacts, and the ability of the state health care system to handle COVID-19 cases. New Mexico is meeting all required thresholds.

But Scrase said that previous easing of restrictions on such things as building occupancy and indoor dining, which occurred about May 16 before the Memorial Day weekend, caused a spike to 325 cases a day in the weeks following, a number he said caused “significant strain on the Department of Health.”

He said that any changes in orders should be looked at like a dimmer switch, rather than an on-off switch, with only incremental changes allowed at any given time. He also said that face coverings will probably be required until a vaccine is available.

Smelser added that epidemiologists typically don’t declare the end of an outbreak for two incubation periods, or 28 days. The state might never reach a full 28-day recovery period before allowing reopening, he said, but “the longer you go meeting all the gating criteria, the better off you’ll be.”

Smelser did acknowledge that containment of the coronavirus is not the only consideration in developing the public health orders.

“We have to take in more factors than just public health data,” he said. “We have to consider people’s wellness, which includes people’s outlook on life and their ability to earn a living, et cetera.”

Asked when public health orders might change to allow businesses to operate more fully, a press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham did not specify any upcoming date.

“Meeting the gating criteria doesn’t mean that all safety precautions can be lifted, it means that what we’re doing is working,” said Nora Sackett. “The state administration will continue to evaluate the data and make evidenced-based decisions about potential further reopenings for the state. In the meantime, it’s crucial that New Mexicans continue to wear masks and avoid gathering in groups in order to continue slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

Scrase said the Economic Recovery Council members will make recommendations on reopening without increased risks. The chairs of that council, Christina Camps, and Brian Moore, were not available for comment Friday. But Sackett stressed that council members serve as advisors only to the gubernatorial administration.

The public health orders, especially those affecting businesses, have resulted in legal fights and public rallies. At least two local and a dozen New Mexico businesses have filed lawsuits over them, and Roswell has seen several protests, including the “Let Us Serve” protests by restaurant workers.

Several state legislators who represent the area have joined other Republican representatives and senators who are requesting a special legislative session to vote on the governor’s emergency orders. In addition, Rep. James Townsend (R-Artesia) has participated in a “friends of the court” brief in a lawsuit against orders affecting businesses, while Sen. Cliff Pirtle (R-Roswell) is distributing “Open New Mexico” bumper stickers, with any donations received intended to be used to defray the legal costs of businesses. He and others also have been holding Sunday protests about the public health orders for several weeks.

“The situation now is the situation we have had the entire time,” Pirtle said. “There are decisions being made and there is not any evidence that anyone in the Governor’s Office is using sound science, other than they don’t want anyone to get sick.”

He said he feels the gubernatorial administration keeps moving the goal posts, which he considers proof that decisions are political rather than science-based. He said the protests are indications that “plenty of people are united” in thinking that restrictions are unnecessary now.

“As science has proven and as sound science has shown, it is now time to reopen,” he said.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.