Home News COVID-19 Situation Commissioners ask for COVID ‘accountability’

Commissioners ask for COVID ‘accountability’

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Chaves County commissioners are asking to speak with New Mexico Department of Health officials involved with COVID-19 data collection, analyses and decision-making, saying that they have questions about the numbers and about how they are used to determine school and business restrictions in the county.

The press secretary for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the data is “thoroughly investigated” and accurate. The five commissioners, while stopping short of saying that the COVID-19 data is inaccurate, said that they and their constituents have questions about some case numbers and other information, given that it is used to determine policy affecting the county’s businesses and residents.

“We need some accountability here, some back-up, because it is so important to our economic business here in this county,” said Commissioner Jeff Bilberry during last week’s meeting of the Board of Commissioners.

He asked a local Department of Health official to help arrange a meeting with someone at the state level or with a member of the Epidemiology and Response Division of the Health Department. Bilberry said they also would consider passing resolutions or taking other actions in efforts to get action.

Other commissioners noted that they had expected a state official to appear remotely at a commissioners meeting in spring 2020, when the first public health and emergency orders concerning the coronavirus were enacted.

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Bilberry said he thought more people in the county would be tested if they thought that would help businesses and schools operate without so many restrictions.

Chaves County, along with 31 other of the state’s 33 counties, remains in the Red Level, or very high risk level, in terms of the state’s three-tier risk-assessment method based on test positivity rates and the number of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people. Businesses and schools can operate with fewer restrictions if they are in the Green Level, which requires a positivity rate of 5% or less and average new daily cases over a two-week period of eight or fewer people per 100,000 population.

State data showed that the county had a 17.51% positivity rate and average daily cases of 85.6 per 100,000 people during the two-week period of Dec. 29 to Jan. 13. That data is due to be updated Wednesday.

The local official and state public health workers have said that testing and vaccinations are key to moving counties into the Green Level, along with the “low-tech” practices of face coverings, social distancing and avoiding crowds.

Commissioner Richard Taylor, an accountant, said he echoed the remarks of other commissioners and that he is especially concerned about youth.

“I work with a lot of businesses, so I see the economic devastation,” he said. “But even more so is the devastation to our children not being educated. They may have virtual education, but they are not being educated. We have got to get open so our children can be educated.”

Questions to the New Mexico Department of Health were referred to Nora Sackett, the press secretary for the Governor’s Office.

She did not answer whether a state official would speak with commissioners, but she repeatedly stressed the accuracy of state numbers and published data and said she considers it dangerous to question the information without direct evidence of wrong data.

She noted that the Health Department’s website, cv.nmhealth.org, has five epidemiology reports updated regularly, as well as information on gating criteria used to guide policy about business and school restrictions. The site also provides COVID-19 modeling to project trends regarding future positive cases, hospitalizations and deaths by state, region and county.

The modeling site updated Jan. 19 indicates that Chaves County is among 23 counties with decelerating weekly positive case numbers. But it is still in the “high” category in terms of case numbers with more than 100 new cases per 100,000 population each week.

Sackett said that public health officials use many different criteria to make decisions, not just case numbers and mortality rates, because the effects of COVID-19 sometimes include “terrible and long-lasting damage to the health of those who have contracted COVID-19.”

She also said that the state of New Mexico has sought to ameliorate the economic difficulties caused by the pandemic and closures.

“The state has enacted hundreds of millions of dollars in pandemic relief,” she said, “including hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of direct grants for New Mexico small businesses and additional unemployment payments for New Mexico families.”

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/.

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