Will there be more testing for COVID-19? Will the state force restaurants and bars to close? Won't family members fall ill if they stay home together?
These were some of the questions New Mexicans posed to US Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-NM, state officials and medical experts in a teletownhall last night.
Luján, who represents the 3rd Congressional District and also is a US senate candidate, told those calling in—more than 10,000 people participated at its peak—that many constituents had been calling his office with questions. Luján himself currently is self-quarantined due to exposure to a person who later tested positive for the virus, but has been told he is at low risk for infection and has no symptoms.
He began by updating listeners on federal funding issues. Earlier this month, the US House passed an $8.3 billion emergency funding package. The House then passed a supplemental package earlier this week, which Luján said the Senate is expected to take up soon. In addition, the House passed The Family First Coronavirus Response Act, which, among other measures, provides free COVID-19 testing for all Americans, safeguards Medicaid benefits, establishes sick leave and provides $1 billion to food security programs. US Sen. Tom Udall, D-NM, discussed the bill—which the US Senate has not taken up yet—in a call with reporters yesterday, saying: "We should have passed this bill already. Leader [Mitch] McConnell has unnecessarily delayed this process."
In addition, the entire New Mexico congressional delegation sent a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services yesterday requesting release of the state's full allotment of personal protective equipment, such as protective gloves and masks, for health care providers responding to the COVID-19. The day prior, according to the lawmakers' letter, the state received "… 25% of its allotment from the strategic national stockpile."
Luján was joined on the call by state Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel; Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley; Julie Fisher, an associate research professor at Georgetown University's Department of Microbiology and Immunology; and Daniel Schlegel, a small business advisor from the governor's office.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and other state officials will have a public status update at noon today at facebook.com/GovMLG.
One caller during the town hall asked Kunkel whether the state would be expanding its criteria for testing in lieu of the Centers for Disease Control loosening testing criteria.
Kunkel said the state "had more flexibility really early on" and "broadened" its criteria weeks ago. The state had been "quietly testing people who tested negatively for flu" using results from its epidemiology clinics around the state. However, she reinforced that the health department remains focused on testing people who have symptoms of the novel coronavirus: fever. "The doctors I work with every day say that's what we need to test," Kunkel said. "Testing someone who doesn't have the symptoms doesn't tell us anything," she added, because they "could come back negative" and later have symptoms. The governor wants expanded testing, she said, but "we don't want to test people who aren't sick and think they are OK."
Kunkel said the health department was assessing all the testing available through health providers and would have additional information at today's briefing.
McCamley reinforced the Department of Workforce Solutions' new guidelines for unemployment assistance, which waive work-search requirements, among other provisions. He also recommended people use the online form rather than the hotline if possible, due to long wait times for the phone service. Information for workers and employers can be found here:
McCamley acknowledged that the current provisions don't cover independent contractors, but said the state has requested a state of disaster from the federal government, which would allow for remedies to independent contractors.
"We are trying to utilize every single tool at our disposal to get through this in the most efficient way possible," McCamley said. If the request isn't accepted, "we'll go back to the drawing board and see if there's any other mechanism."
One caller noted that restaurants and bars, which the state ordered to remain at half capacity, would be better served by mandated full closures in terms of insurance claims.
"It's a thoughtful point," small-business advisor Schlegel said, "and we are at the state very much into the possibility of the closures of bars and restaurants and only allowing for take-out and delivery." Schlegel also mentioned that the state announced yesterday it had qualified for the Small Business Administration Disaster Loan Assistance program. More information on that program is available here.
Regarding the current recommendations for people to stay at home, a caller asked if doing so wouldn't result in family and household members possibly all becoming sick. Health expert Julie Fisher said the assumption is that family and household members already would have been exposed to one another. Nonetheless, she said, people at home together should take the same precautions as everyone else (hand-washing, avoid touching faces, clean surfaces), and take extra precautions if anyone is sick or immunocompromised.
Meanwhile, the City of Santa Fe announced additional measures to its COVID-19 response that go into effect today. The following are in place through the duration of the city's declared state of emergency. These include:
- prohibiting the eviction of residential and commercial property tenants whose ability to pay has been adversely impacted by the public health emergency.
- delaying the collection of the Lodgers Tax, although they still must be reported to the city on time.
- a moratorium on water shut-offs for non-payment; however, customers should contact the water division to make payment arrangements as water charges will continue to accrue and be charged. www.santafenm.gov/customer_service_and_utility_billingor 505-955-4333
- Santa Fe Trails buses are now free.
- Santa Fe Ride ADA complementary paratransit and senior transportation service also are free, but users need to complete an application and receive an ID number to schedule trips. Visit www.santafenm.gov/santa_fe_ride or call 505-955-2001
- all parking—in city garages and streetside—is free.
- The city recommends residents abide the Centers for Disease Control guidelines of limiting gatherings to no more than 10 people, stay at home and practice social distancing.