By MORGAN LEE Associated Press
SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s governor says the state has accepted an invitation from the White House to participate in a pilot program to improve and expand contact tracing for coronavirus infections in efforts to better isolate outbreaks.
Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said the she accepted an invitation to participate in the pilot program during a conversation Wednesday with the White House, and that it was unclear whether other states would be involved.
New Mexico has consistently been among the top states in testing per capita for COVID-19 infections, while aggressively tracing new infections and developing a customized forecast model in cooperation with two national laboratories in the state.
“They want New Mexico to be a pilot for surveillance and research and what we call contact tracing,” Lujan Grisham said. “That’s figuring out a more automated way and bringing in more workers to figure out who has been exposed.”
She said it was clear the effort would involve the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Health and Human Services Department, along with Ambassador Deborah Birx, a coordinator of the White House coronavirus response team and fixture of televised national news conferences.
“It was a call to determine our interest,” Lujan Grisham said.
The first-term Democratic governor has been critical of the federal preparedness for the pandemic — without calling out President Donald Trump by name — and has pushed for a nationally coordinated approach to procuring and distributing protective and medical equipment and slowing the spread of the virus.
“I am very proud of the opportunity to work directly with the federal government, lead the country in these responses and also protect New Mexicans during this public health crisis.”
On a day with no new deaths linked to the coronavirus, state health officials highlighted progress in lowering the so-called doubling rate —- the number of days it takes for infections to double. The rate now stands at between four and five days.
Health officials have confirmed 1,484 infections for the virus and 36 related deaths in the state of 2.1 million residents. More than 33,000 tests have been administered.
Health officials said testing is now available in all 33 counties across the state, with the capability to process 3,500 tests each day.
State officials said they tested 100 workers on Tuesday at the open-pit Chino copper mine in southwestern New Mexico, after coronavirus infection triggered a shutdown by operator Freeport-McMoRan.
Lujan Grisham lashed out at the health care sector for attempting to shelter future profits a day after several hospitals in New Mexico announced major reductions in staffing.
She acknowledged that health care organizations are under financial stress because of a state directive to suspend elective, nonessential surgeries and procedures. But she added that the state has advanced $30 million in Medicare revenues, while a federal stimulus package includes $150 billion in support for the industry.
“That was confirmed by a conversation I had with a leading large private hospital CEO that what they want is a guarantee on their profits for the year, given that they could have done all of those elective surgeries,” Lujan Grisham said. “Quite frankly, I find that to be appalling as we address this public health crisis together.”
The hospital staff reduction comes on top of a collapse of the tourism sector and anemic oil prices that are roiling the state economy as state labor officials rush to distribute new unemployment benefits and small business loans. State health officials currently expect COVID-19 infections to peak in May, putting pressure on health care capabilities — especially rural networks.
“I worry that this is a national advocacy effort aimed at getting more money so that their profit centers are managed and maintained and has little to do with protecting a health care workforce,” Lujan Grisham said of staff reductions in health care.
Republican elected officials are pressuring the state to reopen with some small nonessential businesses that have been sidelined by state health directives, as major retailers including Walmart consolidate control over essential and nonessential retail operations.
Lujan Grisham said any large, categorical relaxation of the business restrictions was out of the question, though her administration is considering allowances for nonessential businesses that can provide curbside service that preserves social distancing.
She said the state cannot relax social distancing requirements without major advances in detecting coronavirus infections, expanded testing, better contact tracing and breakthroughs in treatment such as a vaccine.