This story is part of a collaborative reporting project including New Mexico In Depth called “Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID-19”. Andy and Amy Jo Hellenbrand live on a little farm in south-central Wisconsin where they raise corn, soybeans, wheat, heifers, chickens, goats, bunnies, and their four children, ages 5 to 12. For the entire fall semester, the quartet of grade school students learned virtually from home, as their district elected to keep school buildings closed. That has put a strain on the family, as well as the childrens’ grades and grammar. “I definitely feel like they’re falling behind,” said Amy Jo Hellenbrand.
While a lot of us are caught up in watching the vote count in the presidential race this morning, the disturbing rise in COVID-19 infections in New Mexico this week has reminded me that who will lead this country for the next four years isn’t the only major story. “November is done,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said yesterday during an online COVID media briefing.
During the briefing, the daily update on infections and deaths popped into my inbox announcing 862 new cases and 23 deaths, jarring me out of a now familiar routine of tuning into COVID briefings and, this week, monitoring election results.
Yesterday’s death count far surpassed the previous record of 14 deaths in a single day. What Lujan Grisham meant by saying that November was done, was that those fatalities were seeded in October or September and now all we can do is make it through what will likely be a grim November.
We are experiencing a horrific surge in COVID cases, throughout the state, far exceeding last spring, or the second peak in the summer.
The backdrop is a hospital system busting at the seams. The ICU beds in the state are perilously close to being completely maxed out. The following graphs from yesterday’s briefing show that capacity could be exceeded in one to two weeks. When that happens, the hospitals will move into crisis standards of care.
It’s a crisp late afternoon in Northern New Mexico, the kind of day that invites you to drive with your windows down or chop firewood in preparation for winter.If this were a normal year, Marisa Gutierrez might not register the seasonal change. The 18 year old is usually beyond busy. But this is 2020, and the high school student body president, cheerleader, community organizer, and aspiring valedictorian is feeling cooped up.And pondering lost opportunities.Earlier this year the pandemic killed a conference she had hoped to attend at Emory University in Atlanta for Native American students across the country.The teenager, who is a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo, one of New Mexico’s 23 Native American tribes, yearned to visit an out-of-state college campus.“I have been on college campuses before but nothing outside of New Mexico,” she said. She felt for her peers, too, knowing the missed opportunity it likely represented for many.“I’ve had the advantage and opportunities to see a bunch of places, but a lot of people, specifically Natives, aren’t usually accustomed to looking outside of their Pueblo or outside of their tribe,” she said. “And so I think that would have been a great opportunity for them to experience, kind of, life outside the rez.”
But the missed opportunity hasn’t knocked the high achieving Gutierrez off her quest.
Nearly seven months into a mostly successful fight with COVID-19, New Mexicans are having to digest the unwelcome news that the virus isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it seems to have discovered its second wind.Twice in as many days this week the number of daily infections has shattered New Mexico’s single-day record. And as we did in March and April, suddenly we’re hearing that COVID-19 might overwhelm our state’s health care system if we’re not careful. Hospitalizations have jumped 74% since Oct. 1 and some intensive care units in Albuquerque are already full.Gatherings of more than five people will be illegal starting today and establishments that sell alcohol must close at 10 p.m., according to a new public health order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that extends through Nov. 13.In addition, New Mexico will require travelers coming from high-risk states to quarantine for 14 days instead of allowing them to avoid the isolation if they test negative, as was the previous practice.“I cannot be more clear: The moment to turn the tide has to be right now, immediately, or else we face accelerating significant illnesses and needless deaths for hundreds of New Mexicans,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said in a press release.
New Mexico’s jail population dropped by a third earlier this year as officials agreed to incarcerate fewer people to avoid the spread COVID-19. But the population has crept back up since June and infections have soared among both inmates and staff from 37 cases by early June to nearly 970 as of September 25, according to government data reviewed by New Mexico In Depth. It’s not clear whether more crowded jails, along with their decreased chances for social distancing, has spiked the case numbers. Virus cases have dramatically increased in a handful of jails in counties where cases have remained stubbornly high outside the walls — and officials say inmates are entering the jails already infected, identified by testing as they are booked.
But the increases in cases and populations have renewed discussions about how to ensure the virus doesn’t spread further inside jails and the communities they serve. Officials hope to repeat the success of the low infection numbers through the pandemic’s first few months, when law enforcement, judges, jail administrators, prosecutors and defense lawyers cooperated to keep jail populations down.
Schools revamp meal programs during COVID-19 to curb childhood hunger, with potential to fix long-term problems
The day starts early each Friday at the Mora Independent School District in northern New Mexico. Staff arrive before the sun is up to pack coolers of breakfasts and lunches to supply 310 remote students with five days of meals. By 9 a.m., loaded school buses rumble out of the parking lot on their delivery run.Another 25 students pick up meals at school cafeterias each week day, while 71 students attending in-person classes eat at school Monday through Thursday. It’s just the latest variation for Rachel Martinez, Mora schools food service director. Since COVID-19 shut down schools in March, she’s mailed meals through the postal service and distributed them using six fire departments around the rural district. She and other staff also have hand-delivered meals house to house. But in early September, the district started delivering meals to bus stops, sometimes as close to kids’ homes as the end of a driveway.
Bueno Para Todos, a small farm in Villanueva, began 2020 with a hoop house and four planted areas enclosed in wooden frames raised above the ground. A few chokecherry and apricot trees planted years ago had taken root along the sun-soaked valley floor. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, throwing people out of work and wiping grocery store shelves bare.Six months later, the pandemic’s imprint on the small farm in the Pecos river valley of central New Mexico is easy to see. Twelve raised planting beds and three-quarters of an acre of newly planted plum, cherry, nectarine, and apricot trees grow alongside a waffle garden, a Zuni farming technique, of corn, beans, squash, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, and herb. A rain catchment and drip irrigation system is coming soon. COVID-19 has turned the world upside down, but one overlooked positive might be a rise in interest in gardening and local farms becoming a source for helping to feed a growing population of New Mexicans whose next meal is not guaranteed.
Just enough to get people through — not a gallon of bleach, but a 4-ounce mason jar of it, half a dozen diapers, a few cups of beans, a bag of potatoes, some vegetables, a pound of hamburger meat. Almost every day, Albuquerque Mutual Aid volunteers sanitize and pack items, then load them into cars. Wearing masks and gloves, they drop care packages at people’s doors and photograph them to confirm delivery.
The goal: fast, responsive care, particularly for those who might fall through the cracks.
“All the barriers that people run into when they’re trying to access food, that’s what we try to address,” said Selinda Guerrero, with Fight For Our Lives. The organization pulled together with other groups to help people as the COVID-19 pandemic threw some New Mexicans out of work or made venturing out a risk they didn’t want to take.
Roughly 90 volunteers help buy and sort groceries. They take donated food, too, including granola bars and cereal from General Mills that would otherwise be thrown away.
It’s late in the evening when I’m able to reach Yasmin Cervantes. She tells me she’s feeling nervous because she’s never done an interview before. We both chuckle. I reassure her that we’re just having a conversation about her experience. She chuckles again and begins to tell me about her day.
I got into journalism years ago out of a desire to help people, as much a calling as a job. The last several days have reminded me why. A federal investigation released last week backed up the reporting of Bryant Furlow who wrote in June for us and our partner, ProPublica, that Lovelace Women’s Hospital had violated patients’ rights. Indeed, the investigation by the state of New Mexico and U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) found the hospital had singled out pregnant Native American women for COVID-19 testing and separated mothers from their newborns without adequate consent until test results became available.Lovelace has submitted a plan to correct problems and has promised to conduct internal audits to ensure compliance with state and federal regulations and COVID-19 screening guidance.Lovelace has denied any wrongdoing, saying it never separated a baby from their mother without consent.But Native American mothers told investigators they “felt pressured or misled by the hospital when it came to ZIP code-based COVID-19 testing and newborn separations.”In one case, a Native American mother told investigators she was tested for COVID-19 without being informed she could say no. Only once labor had been induced, she told investigators, did a nurse-midwife explain that her newborn would be taken until her test results were available, NM In Depth reported.
She then was given two options, the mother told investigators:
She could stop the medication inducing contractions and sleep while she waited for test results, or she could continue the birth process and have her newborn taken away “because that’s the policy.”
“I told her, ‘You are not going to do that, and you are not going to take my baby,’” she told investigators.
Kelly Maestas starts each weekday the same way, cranking up a school bus parked at the Cuba Independent School District bus barn.The sun has already risen over the San Pedro mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest. But on Friday morning a smoggy haze lingers over this rural redoubt of New Mexico thanks to the Medio fire just north of Santa Fe, the Pine Gulch Fire in Colorado or any of the 90 large fires in California.
A few years ago Maestas traded in a big rig for the school bus. Rather than bustling with students, however, it’s empty save for a few dozen bags of meals and school assignments for the kids on his route.Over several hours, Maestas will stop 65 times — each stop a home of a student or students who attend Cuba’s schools — racking up 112 miles.These days Maestas and 10 other bus drivers are an integral component of the Cuba school district’s response to a global pandemic that mingles old-timey itinerant circuit-riding with 21st-century tech.Every day, the 11 bus drivers put close to 900 miles on their vehicles delivering food and education kits to the district’s more than 500 students who have yet to return to the classroom and in many cases, can not access the internet from home. Because so many Cuba students lack sufficient broadband or cellular service, the school district, which is larger than the state of Rhode Island, has distributed to every student special bracelets armed with a built-in USB-drive. Students use them to download lessons when they drive to an internet hotspot.