A public defender in the state capital has tested positive for COVID-19, prompting officials to shutter the Santa Fe office and begin contact tracing that includes jail inmates and court personnel, according to a news release from the state Law Office of the Public Defender.

The attorney was in self-quarantine at home as of Wednesday evening, the release says. It was not immediately clear whether the attorney, who was not identified in the release, had severe symptoms.

After the release was issued, Jennifer Burrill, 48, contacted SFR to say she is the attorney who tested positive.
This marks the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in New Mexico for someone working or caught up in the state’s criminal justice system. 

Also not clear from the release was how many other attorneys, people who work in Santa Fe's First Judicial District courthouse or people locked up at the Santa Fe County Detention Center may have come into contact with Burrill in recent days.

She tells SFR that she provided a list of 61 names to the public defenders office and to the state Department of Health to assist in the contact tracing.

The  public defenders office praised its own efforts and those of the jail and court to limit person-to-person contact and said those measures led to “limited direct contact with inmates and jail personnel.”

Pressure has mounted on jail and prison officials to test inmates for the novel coronavirus, release nonviolent offenders and take other steps to make state and county lockups safer for the 15,000 or so people who are incarcerated in New Mexico.

Burrill's list of names includes a dozen people she believes are still locked up at the Santa Fe County jail and six others who have been released.

Santa Fe County has tested just two inmates—and no corrections officers—for COVID-19; one test has come back negative, the other is pending.

Carmelina Hart, a county spokeswoman, tells SFR a third inmate, a woman, was moved into one of the jail's quarantine pods Wednesday after showing symptoms of the coronavirus. Jail officials were waiting for the state Health Department to test the woman for COVID-19.

Hart says that test is not related to Burrill’s disclosure. Despite the LOPD describing Burrill’s “limited direct contact” with inmates, Hart says none were tested. However, she tells SFR that jail officials “interviewed” every inmate who has had contact with an attorney during the last two weeks and asked whether those inmates had symptoms of the virus.

None had symptoms, Hart says, and none was tested.

According to the LOPD news release, the agency is "performing a contact history to alert as many of our professional partners and clients as possible."

"The remaining LOPD offices across the state are strictly following [Department of Health] and [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] guidelines and working around the clock to limit possible exposure for colleagues and clients, since an exposure of a confined jail population to the coronavirus could be catastrophic," the release says.

Chief Public Defender Bennet Baur declined to comment when reached Wednesday evening by text message, but says in the release: "We're thankful our employee is able to quarantine at home at this time. We will continue to be proactive with measures to protect the health of our employees, our colleagues in the justice system and our clients."

New Mexico's courts have already altered many practices. On Monday, the Supreme Court limited the number of people to no more than 15 in courtrooms and other locations inside a courthouse to promote social distancing recommended by public health officials. Judges are under order to conduct audio and video teleconferencing for civil and criminal proceedings, except when an emergency requires in-person appearances.

Santa Fe Municipal Court is closed to the public until at least April 6, 2020. A city announcement said hearings that are constitutionally required will be conducted telephonically or by video. Those with citations or summonses that required court appearances during the closure will receive a notices new courts date by phone and by mail.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with a more complete response from Santa Fe County about inmate testing in its jail.