This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Get their investigations emailed to you directly by signing up at revealnews.org/newsletter. Kathy Kunkel, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Health, was frustrated. She was getting reports the first week of May of horrifying conditions at the Otero County Processing Center, one of three U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in the state. Detainees were responsible for disinfecting their own living spaces but weren’t getting adequate cleaning supplies.
Protesters of the police killing of George Floyd organized a protest caravan in Albuquerque, NM, May 28. Credit: Shaun Griswold
This story was published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts. New Mexico In Depth is an investigative, nonprofit newsroom that occasionally republishes stories that have particular relevance to New Mexicans. Don’t miss out, sign up to receive our stories soon after they’re published. Every weekday morning, mental health clinician Carleigh Sailon turns on her police radio in downtown Denver and finds out who she can help next.
Advanced Health Care facility in Albuquerque. Tara Armijo-Prewitt/New Mexico In Depth
We published a story this week about the nursing home industry resisting for years a federal mandate to plan for disasters including pandemics. About 43% of nursing homes nationally have been caught violating the requirement, including some with deadly COVID-19 outbreaks.
The story by New Mexico In Depth reporter Bryant Furlow and partners at ProPublica and the Raleigh, NC-based News & Observer newspaper features a COVID-19 outbreak and deaths at a nursing home in Albuquerque, Advanced Health Care. As of yesterday, 102 of 335 New Mexicans who have died due to the COVID-19 pandemic were residents of nursing homes, and another 30 were residents of other long-term care facilities. We don’t know how many, if any, staff of nursing homes have died.
It’s important to know that AHC of Albuquerque earned a 5-Star rating — the highest level — from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
Crude oil storage tanks dot the landscape in San Juan County. Marjorie Childress/New Mexico In Depth
The oil and gas industry may have cratered over the last few months due to a steep drop in consumer demand brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still a major player in shaping New Mexico’s state Legislature.
Oil companies have pumped $1.1 million dollars into 2020 New Mexico primary election campaigns since last October. The industry distributed $180,000 of that total since March 11, the date the first COVID-19 case was identified in New Mexico and the economy subsequently began rapidly shutting down.
The industry contributes large amounts to New Mexico politicians every election cycle, and runs its own campaigns independently as well. Such political spending by the industry occurs whether the oil industry is in one of its notorious “bust” cycles, or booming. Over the last couple of years, the industry has been booming, fueling an injection of billions of dollars into the state budget.
Kathleen Sabo, executive director of New Mexico Ethics Watch, said the sheer size of the industry, and its importance to the state budget, gives it a great deal of influence.
“Most legislators seem to be very careful around the industry,” said Sabo, “it’s not partisan.” Sabo said efforts to regulate the industry can generate comments at the statehouse from both sides of the aisle about “killing the goose that lays the golden egg.”
Indeed, New Mexico In Depth found in 2019 that no regulatory bills targeting oil and gas were successful during the legislative session without the blessing of the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association, despite strong Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a new Democratic governor.
Its influence goes beyond campaign contributions, Sabo said.
As the first wave of COVID-19 hits communities during primary season, states are still resolving how to hold elections in the middle of a pandemic. Voter advocates and organizers see the primaries as a test run, with many assuming that the November general election will also need to adapt to COVID-19. Since April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, a virologist, and epidemiologists have predicted that another, potentially worse, wave of the virus will hit communities this fall and winter. Universal vote-by-mail is being promoted by secretaries of State and voter advocates alike as a clear solution to balancing voter access and public health concerns. In this area, the West leads the way.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.A few days after Easter, the Police Department in Lubbock, Texas, received a call from a concerned employee of a car dealership on the southwest side of the West Texas town.Management had continued to flout safety orders imposed by Gov. Greg Abbott, part of an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the employee who said he was about to self-quarantine after coming into contact with personal protective equipment a customer had left in a traded-in vehicle.It was the fifth time the city had received a complaint about the McGavock Nissan dealership in less than three weeks. The fire marshal’s office dispatched an inspector who confirmed that the dealership was not enforcing social distancing guidelines or sanitizing cars between test drives. But the inspector issued no citation, instead passing along the information to “city hall for directive.”The next day, on the opposite end of the sprawling state, police in the border town of Laredo were alerted to social media posts from two women, one doing nails and the other eyelash extensions, from their homes in violation of Abbott’s orders. Neither was a licensed cosmetologist.Instead of issuing warnings or urging them to comply, as happened in Lubbock, Laredo police launched an undercover sting to catch the two women, resulting in their arrests.As Texas now reopens at Abbott’s direction, under a much looser set of restrictions, a ProPublica-Texas Tribune analysis of complaint data in a dozen cities shows these disparate approaches to enforcement — particularly among businesses — were incredibly common across the state.Cities and counties arrived at dramatically different interpretations of Abbott’s emergency orders.
While Navajo people represent the worst hit by COVID-19 in absolute numbers — Navajos represent 45% of all New Mexico’s positive cases – two Pueblo communities are being hit harder, by percentage of their population, according to data provided by state health officials.
About 11% of Zia Pueblo and 4% of San Felipe members have contracted the virus compared to about 2% of Navajo Nation members who live in New Mexico. The New Mexico Department of Health provided New Mexico In Depth a detailed breakdown of the number of positive cases by tribal affiliation through Monday. Those numbers show that the great majority of tribes in the state have cases of COVID-19. The New Mexico Department of Health provided this chart to New Mexico In Depth on Monday, May 11, showing the tribal affiliation of Native American people in New Mexico who have contracted COVID-19 through Monday. Navajo people represented 2,194 of the state’s 5,069 cases on Monday. Reported separately were non-contiguous Navajo chapters.
Half of the 200 people who had died as of yesterday in New Mexico from COVID-19 were Native Americans, a jarring number for a population that makes up 11% of the state’s population.It’s another grim statistic for the state’s 23 tribes who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico. Nearly 60% of people identified to date through testing as infected with the virus are indigenous. Data about those who’ve died, provided to New Mexico In Depth by the New Mexico Department of Health, came in advance of Monday’s daily update from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office. That update included eight additional deaths, pushing the state’s death total to 208, four of which occurred in hard-hit McKinley County, where Native Americans make up almost 80% of the population.
The 100 deaths attributed to Native Americans in New Mexico likely include Navajo people living in the state as well as Native Americans from the state’s more than 20 other tribes.
Meanwhile, deaths attributed to white people in New Mexico–30%–exceed the 14% of identified positive cases attributed to that group, but still fall below their representation in the population as a whole.
A chart from the April 28 report of the NM COVID-19 modeling group shows the disproportionate concentration of COVID-19 cases in the northwest part of New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took baby-steps to reopen New Mexico’s economy Thursday, allowing non-essential retailers to provide curbside and by-appointment services, opening golf courses and making state parks available for day use starting Friday.
But the new order sidesteps the state’s epicenter of COVID-19 — New Mexico’s northwest corner. Earlier in the day Thursday, the mayor of Gallup sent a letter pleading with the governor to declare a state of emergency in the city, which accounts for just 3.5% of New Mexico’s population but 30% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
“Our community is unable to adequately address the outbreak without the imposition of certain restrictions necessary to regulate social distancing, public gatherings, sales of goods, and the use of public streets,” Mayor Jackie McKinney wrote. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez “fully supports the request and is hopeful that it will help to prevent Navajo people from traveling to the border town,” said a daily press release from his office.
Indeed, a New Mexico COVID-19 modeling report available on the Department of Health website, dated Tuesday, notes the “NW region has the highest growth rate; week-over-week improvement is leveling off indicating additional actions are critical.”
The new public order announcing some loosening of the economic shutdown across the state specifically excludes McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties. And, the governor said Thursday those counties would likely see more restrictions. She did not give details, but said they were being worked on. During Thursday’s update Lujan Grisham announced a Navajo Nation Rapid Response Team, an acknowledgement of the severity of the situation.
Members of a New Mexico rapid response team focused on the Navajo Nation, listed in a slide during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s April 30 press conference.
New Mexico In Depth welcomes reporter Shaun Griswold to our team beginning next week. Shaun is Pueblo from Laguna, Jemez and Zuni, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup.
He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience to our team. He’s covered Rocky Mountain fire seasons, local police reform, and, as he is sure to note, the Denver Broncos and Kendrick Lamar.
We’re thrilled by the opportunity to work with Shaun, thanks to Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities through its reporting corps. Report for America is an initiative of the nonprofit news organization, The GroundTruth Project. He joins 225 reporters placed by the program in 162 newsrooms around the country, from a pool of more than 1,800 applicants.
For New Mexico In Depth, Shaun will focus on issues important to urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque, as well as tribal communities throughout New Mexico, including education, child welfare, and more.
“I’m excited to join the ranks of Indigenous journalists at Indian Country Today, Navajo Times, High Country News and every publication focused on expanding news for thriving Indigenous communities that demand coverage,” he says about this opportunity.
Native Americans compose 11% of the New Mexico state population, and Albuquerque is home to one of the largest communities of urban Indian people in the country.