In the space of 24 hours, the United States seemed to close shop.
Disneyland shut its gates. The NCAA cancelled March Madness and the NBA suspended its season. President Trump ended travel by Europeans into the United States. The show will not go on for the biggest concert tours and Broadway theaters, at least for now. And churches and universities across the country and the globe chose to eliminate in-person services and classes temporarily. Closer to home, all of New Mexico public schools will close for three weeks starting Monday, and gatherings of more than 100 people are banned, with some exemptions.
Against a backdrop of almost 140,000 confirmed cases worldwide and more than 5,000 dead, and a quickening spread within the U.S., both the private and public sectors almost enmasse decided to constrain a new virus — Covid-19 (Co=corona, Vi=virus, D=disease, 19=2019).
It’s a lot to take in. And it’s not over.
The hope is that social distancing–a term most everyone will likely understand soon if they don’t already–will slow the virus’ spread. And by slowing it down, avoid crippling our medical system by a surge of patients requiring medical care in intensive care units and emergency rooms, as has happened in other countries.
The majority of people infected with Covid-19 won’t need hospitalization. But with a rapidly spreading virus, even if only a fraction need medical care in New Mexico the need could strain the state’s services, officials say. Extreme cases will need mechanical ventilation and an intensive care bed.
Currently, the state has 344 Intensive care unit beds with 54 vacant as of two days ago, Dr. David R. Scrase, cabinet secretary of New Mexico’s Human Services Department, said during a Friday morning press conference in Santa Fe. In addition, the state could convert 3,000 hospital beds to care for infected patients if the need arises, HSD communications director Jodi McGinnis Porter said.
If there are enough ICU beds, patients will have a much better chance for survival. And social distancing means fewer of the more vulnerable will be exposed in the first place.
Scrase pointed to a Harvard study of steps taken during the 2009 H1N1 epidemic that demonstrated school closures reduced infection rates.
“It only works if families take it seriously and adopt a principle of social isolation,” Scrase said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham emphasized that people staying home is the best way New Mexicans can help constrain the outbreak. The confirmed number of New Mexico’s Covid-19 cases jumped from 6 to 10 Friday. Right now, all of the cases involve people who traveled or people who came into close contact with travelers, Scrase said.
If cases emerge that aren’t travel related and show community spread of the virus, what will happen? It’s too early to talk about further measures, the governor said, but the state has broad powers and “I’m prepared to make every hard decision that saves lives.”
Sounds like a pretty good reason for us all to stay home.
And yet, there are dangers from social distancing to consider.
- It may further isolate those who already struggle with few family and friends.
- Mass economic closures could sweep away paychecks that are crucially important in a society with a poor social safety net.
- Children reliant on the stability and supports of school may find themselves in precarious environments and not able to reach out to others.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged the hardship to businesses and families. “It will be difficult,” she said.
The state has rolled out an emergency small business loan program to help businesses negatively affected by coronavirus. And Department of Workforce Solutions Cabinet Secretary Bill McCamley said his agency will waive job search requirements for state unemployment aid starting Monday.
When it comes to the vast number of children who rely on schools for their meals, state officials said their goal is for every child to get breakfast and lunch each day they’re out of school.
“We know schools provide essential services,” said Education Secretary Ryan Stewart. Cafeterias will remain open and they’re looking at grab-and-go meal services, as well as distribution programs for kids who can’t come in to get a meal. They are also working to keep school health clinics open.
The governor mentioned the state’s Aging and Long Term Services and the National Guard could help deliver meals if it comes to that.
Meanwhile, childcare assistance will continue, with the state working on a plan to provide temporary childcare service in school buildings. But it was clear the governor struggled to answer how a single parent with a job can care for their children with schools closed. She urged neighbors and families and employers to step up. An employer could allow the parent to telecommute; family members and neighbors could watch the children.
“I have no trouble asking New Mexicans to help,” she said. “We have to do it together.”
Lujan Grisham also urged parents to call the state non-health hotline if they need help: 1-833-551-0518.
At the federal level, bi-partisan negotiations will likely result in an emergency relief package very soon. National press reports indicate benefits could include free coronavirus testing, extended unemployment insurance, paid sick leave and expanded food assistance.
So what can you do?
The overwhelming message from state officials is to stay home if at all possible. If you must go to work, follow guidelines for washing your hands, not touching your face, and limiting human to human contact.
We’d add: You can reach out to your family, friends and neighbors over the phone or social media. Check in on them. See how they are doing. Make sure they know how to get help.
- New Mexico In Depth is mapping the outbreak in New Mexico. Here is our resource page.
- The New Mexico Department of Health resource page with phone hotline and official number of covid-19 cases in New Mexico.
- The New Mexico Economic Development Department has created a new program for businesses that need loans or lines of credit due to negative economic impacts of the outbreak.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resource page with information about the disease, prevention and containment efforts.
- John Hopkins University is mapping the global outbreak by cases and by deaths.
- The Albuquerque Journal has a good coronavirus page with their reporting and resources.
- So do the New York Times, the Washington Post and NMID’s partner ProPublica.
- The Kaiser Health News team has a page, too.
You are reading New Mexico In Depth’s weekly newsletter, which goes out each Friday by email. To receive the newsletter, sign up here.