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COVID orders raise questions, concerns

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10 deaths, 1,180 cases reported in state Saturday

Local reactions to stricter state health orders include anger, uncertainty, frustration and unanswered questions.

“A lot of places are going to get hurt very badly,” said Roswell Mayor Dennis Kintigh, explaining that he is concerned that smaller restaurants, stores and businesses might not survive two additional weeks of closure or restricted business operations.

He said he acknowledges that COVID-19 is a problem for the area, but he questions whether the infection process is really well understood, why the nursing shortage isn’t being addressed and whether restricting social contact will be counterproductive because they will encourage the homebound contacts that he thinks could be the culprit for a lot of infections.

He and Will Cavin, chairman of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners, said that planning begins next week for how to distribute vaccines in the region once they become available.

In the meantime, many people are looking at two weeks and a Thanksgiving holiday spent largely indoors with family pets and relatives.

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Orders address coronavirus ‘spike’

The amended orders announced Friday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are in response to rising numbers for COVID cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

According to information from the New Mexico Department of Health, New Mexico’s rolling seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases is 1,012, nearly 10 times greater than the target the state has set for its “reopening” process. Total COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen about 214% over the most recent four weeks. During the past two weeks, the state has reported 182 COVID-19 deaths, a record over the course of the pandemic and a 143% increase compared to the prior two-week period.

The amended orders again ban indoor food and drink service at restaurants and bars; close indoor malls, outdoor recreational facilities and “close-contact” businesses such as salons and gyms; restrict the number of people allowed in essential retail operations; order non-essential retail businesses to close their physical locations; require remote work by most employees; and instruct people to stay inside their homes except for essential tasks related to health, safety and welfare.

The amended orders take effect Monday and last until at least Nov. 30. After that, orders and restrictions will be determined county-by-county based on their infection spread rates and other such “reopening” criteria.

Case numbers remain high

Chaves County is one of 25 counties in the “red zone” for its high positivity rate of 14.4% and an average daily case rate of 70.8 per 100,000 population. Only three counties are in the green zone for positivity rates of 8% or lower and new daily cases of 8 or fewer per 100,000 people. Five counties are in the yellow zone.

The Saturday COVID-19 numbers released by the New Mexico Department of Health were high as well, with 29 counties out of 33 reporting new cases. Of the counties with new cases, 17 had numbers in the double digits, with Bernalillo reporting 335 and Doña Ana having 162. In total, New Mexico had 1,180 new cases Saturday. The total since March is 63,171.

Chaves County had the fourth-highest count Saturday with 61 new cases, bringing its total case number since March to 3,016.

Ten additional deaths statewide also were reported Saturday involving residents of Bernalillo, Doña Ana, Grant, Roosevelt and Sandoval counties. All but one had preexisting conditions and all were either hospitalized or in care facilities.

There have now been 1,208 COVID-related deaths in the state since the pandemic began, with Chaves County having lost 22 of its residents.

Locals: Still many questions

Roswell residents asked about their thoughts regarding the new health orders said they are acknowledging the need to deal with the virus, but they also expressed a range of concerns and issues.

“It is hard. It is upsetting,” said Molly Boyle, a local business owner and a board member with MainStreet Roswell about the new closures of shops and businesses during the prime shopping time around Thanksgiving. “A lot of businesses really depend on Black Friday and Small Business Saturday to stay open.”

She said it is also difficult for businesses to plan without knowing what will happen after two weeks.

Downtown is planning Small Business Sunday starting today since physical locations won’t be open during Thanksgiving weekend, but that wasn’t the plan for tenants of the Roswell Mall, including Roswell CrossFit.

Gym owner Richard Ramirez, a first responder in Carlsbad as well, said his business had just about recovered in terms of customer levels from the prior health restrictions. But he said he has been told by the mall that he cannot offer classes outdoors and isn’t sure yet what he will do for the coming weeks.

“I am unhappy because I believe physical fitness should be considered essential,” he said. “As a firefighter and paramedic, I have seen firsthand an increase in depression and suicidal thoughts.”

He said physical activity and social interaction are essential to well-being, especially for youth.

“I am not a parent,” he said, “but, if I were, I would be vocal about wanting them to be able to be active and around other kids.”

Mayor Kintigh said he has been meeting weekly with public safety officials, emergency services officials, hospital administrators and school district officials to monitor the COVID situation. Next week, city and county officials will begin talks about vaccine distribution here once supplies are made available. News reports indicate that could be in December, with health care workers, first responders and those deemed most vulnerable to severe cases expected to be the first in line.

But at least for Mayor Kintigh, what remains are many questions about why community spread is happening in the way that it is.

He knows that some think of southeastern New Mexico as largely “non-compliant” when it comes to health orders such as social distancing, no mass gatherings and use of face coverings, but he said huge increases have been seen in Doña Ana and Santa Fe counties, which are generally considered more compliant.

“I don’t think we truly know why certain people get it and others don’t,” he said. “The lack of clarity is disturbing.”

He said people frequently share anecdotal evidence about one spouse becoming infected with the other not, or some family members in a household testing positive and others not.

“We are still not getting accurate information, or adequate information, on what is really happening,” Kintigh said. “We have had instances where people who work with the city have come down positive, yet none of those cases have been linked to transmission at work. So where are these transmissions occurring? The anecdotal information indicates these are happening in private gatherings, or family gatherings. Or one of the frustrations I have with the new orders is this is going to force people into doing more of those.”

He also said the state needs to address the shortage of nursing and medical personnel. The state has adequate hospital facilities, he said. What he wants to see is a plan to recruit more nursing staff into New Mexico.

Cavin of the Chaves County Board of Commissioners said he had anticipated more restrictive state orders when he saw COVID-19 case numbers keep rising over the past few weeks.

He said the county “puts its businesses first” but also will encourage people to wear face coverings, practice social distancing and wash their hands.

“We are trying to get people in Chaves County to understand what’s best. Let’s be smart. Let’s be vigilant. It is a reality. The more you focus on it — and not be scared of it, not be anxious of it — but use that common sense with it, the better we all will be here in Chaves County and New Mexico and the country.”

Like Kintigh, he said the county is seeking more information. He said commissioners have invited state public health and human services officials to make presentations to them and are hoping that will occur soon.

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

To keep up with local coverage of the coronavirus, go to rdrnews.com/category/news/covid-19-situation/.