NM COVID surge spurs emergency public health meeting

At a normal meeting Friday between state health officials and representatives of local and tribal health councils, a hastily changed agenda signaled the urgency of the worsening COVID situation in New Mexico. More than 100 people across the state attended Friday afternoon’s ZOOM call. Despite nearly 74% of New Mexico adults being fully vaccinated, which is relatively high, New Mexico appears headed toward another crisis stage of COVID. The rolling 7-day average of COVID cases in New Mexico apexed a year ago and waned during spring and summer of 2021, as seen in the image below. But the cases have crept upward since August and now seem to be hitting worrying levels.

Trying to understand fear of critical race theory and diversity programs

I’ve been watching school board races across the country — in places like Southlake, Texas and Guilford, Conn. — because of the debate over  “critical race theory” and growing opposition to diversity and equity programs.

These are mostly white, affluent communities near big cities. Imagine my surprise this week to discover the debate is happening in my town, too. Patrick Brenner, a vice president of development for the Rio Grande Foundation, a prominent conservative think tank in New Mexico, is running for the school board in Rio Rancho, New Mexico’s third-largest city composed mostly of Anglos and Hispanics. According to Brenner’s personal blog, he believes the district’s teachers are being trained in critical race theory, which will result in “All white people” feeling guilty “for being white,” including his 8-year-old daughter.

Housing shortage hampers community re-entry for prisoners

Statewide, there’s a shortage of available housing for offenders exiting prison.State lawmakers got the bad news Wednesday during a hearing of the Courts, Corrections and Justice legislative committee. There are many challenges to placing prisoners in communities, according to New Mexico corrections officials and a program manager for an Albuquerque transitional living center.Like many corrections systems, New Mexico has long struggled to keep offenders from bouncing back into incarceration, a cycle known as recidivism.In late 2019, the rate of offenders returning to behind bars — measured in the three years after a person gets out — stood at 57% “from a high of 60%”, but well above the department’s target of a 45% rate, the New Mexico Legislature’s budget arm noted in a recent report.The lack of housing increases the turnstile of recidivism. Having a stable place to live helps the chances of successful reentry for a formerly incarcerated person. Said another way, it lowers the likelihood a person will return to prison. I’ve learned over the years reading government reports and scholarly studies that housing, like education, has positive effects on a person’s life as they return to society. Don’t take my word for it.”Having a stable home is a fundamental part of reentering society, providing a place from which to orient oneself while beginning to search for employment, reestablish social networks, and get treatment.” That’s an excerpt from a December 2019 report by the Criminal Justice Policy Group of Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.It might seem a bit esoteric, worrying about how many former prisoners go back to prison, but it affects all of us.  The person trying to escape the cycle and their families.

Remembering 9/11 and the world it ushered in

On the morning of September 11, 2001, my wife and I and our two-year-old son were in the middle of our morning routine in a two-bedroom apartment in Connecticut 80 miles from New York City. 

We’d just returned from vacation in Pennsylvania — Lancaster County and Philadelphia — and as I readied for work I turned on the TV just in time to watch the first tower fall. After that everything is a blur, although I remember yelling to my wife in the back yard out the open window that one of the towers had tumbled in an explosion of dust and debris, a minute or so before an editor called to say I was needed in the newsroom immediately. For the next three months at my newspaper, daily life was a powerful mix of chaos and sadness as we  compiled during overly long days a running list of local people unaccounted for in Manhattan or counted as dead and attempted to tell their stories. In the middle of that grimness an elderly woman 10 miles from our apartment died of anthrax, one of five Americans to succumb to a weaponized version of a naturally occurring biological pathogen. Her death put everyone on greater edge than before, including me. 

Two decades on, I’ve made peace with the fact that 9/11 and the weeks and months afterward will stay with me the rest of my life. But as traumatic as those times were and as powerfully evocative as my memories of them are for me, time has widened my perspective on 9/11 and the world it helped create.If we are honest with ourselves, Americans should reflect on both the complicated story of 9/11 and  what unfolded as a result of it over the next 20 years.

New Mexico Early Childhood Trust Fund flush with new revenue

New Mexicans who care about child well being and the state’s newest agency — the Early Childhood Development and Care Department — woke up to good news Friday morning.As you might remember, the agency launched a year ago with a trust fund valued at more than $300 million to help pay its way. Expectations were for the fund to grow to $1 billion over 10 years, if lucky. (The agency won’t directly tap into the fund to pay for expenses. Instead, the interest earned by the trust fund will help to finance the department’s spending.) So much for the low-ball projection. Word came Friday morning that the Early Childhood Trust Fund, as it’s known, is about to double, to nearly $650 million, thanks to booming tax collections and a strong recovery in the oil and gas markets following the COVID-provoked collapse of 2020. Nearly $335 million in excess cash — basically, surplus dollars from what the state took in over what it spent during the state fiscal year that ended June 30th — will flow to the trust fund.

Herrell must stop the anti-vaccine rhetoric; it’s not the time for politics

Republican 2nd District Congresswoman Yvette Herrell made news earlier this week for signing on to co-sponsor legislation that would withhold federal dollars from schools and universities that mandate COVID vaccinations before students, teachers, staff faculty can attend.  

Don’t fret. The bill will not become law. Filed by Republican Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, it has attracted 10 co-sponsors, all GOP lawmakers in a U.S. House controlled by Democrats. It’s “message” legislation that positions Herrell in the escalating cultural war over COVID. 

But it’s a dangerous time to play politics. The more contagious Delta variant is sweeping the nation as schools and colleges and universities are preparing to return for the fall term.

The virus’ wake-up call for New Mexico

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.

Doing impactful journalism in a chaotic world

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.

Reject Birtherism 2.0

Before Donald J. Trump was president, he repeatedly demanded to see President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. A leader in a “birtherism” movement that openly called into question Obama’s citizenship, the bigotry by the then-New York developer and reality TV show celebrity helped propel him into the presidency in 2016. Is it any surprise then that this week Trump, now president, is reprising his role as Birther No. 1? In a press conference Thursday, President Trump gave credibility to racist conspiracy theories that call into question Kamala Harris’ eligibility to run as Joe Biden’s running mate.

Even if Albuquerque isn’t the next Portland you should pay attention

Federal agents are coming to Albuquerque, but officials have assured residents that New Mexico’s largest city isn’t the next Portland. In Portland, protests for racial justice have continued nonstop since the killing of George Floyd in late May but had decreased in size, according to the local paper, by the time the Trump administration sent in federal agents early this month, ostensibly to protect federal property and guard public statues. That injection energized the protests, leading to nightly confrontations as throngs of new and old protestors clashed with camo-wearing, unidentified police roaming the streets. The Oregon Attorney General, responding to accounts, has accused federal agents of whisking people away in unmarked vehicles without probable cause in at least two instances, and two federal watchdogs have opened investigations. 

Images of tear gassed crowds and burning statues in that Pacific Northwest city have flashed across the country, putting to bed the wisdom of thinking that a show of dominance can be a calming force. But those images are likely one goal of a president seeking re-election on a law-and-order platform. I anticipate more than a few campaign ads over the next three and a half months featuring clashes between federal agents and Portlanders with a man’s voice intoning order against chaos and violence in America’s cities.