As it happened: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives update on COVID-19 surge in New Mexico

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

SANTA FE - It is Tuesday, Oct. 20. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is leading a press conference to announce updates on New Mexico's recent COVID-19 surge and her administration's efforts to slow the spread and reduce growing pressure on the state's hospital system. 

The state has experienced an accelerating surge of the disease caused by the novel SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus since Labor Day weekend. Late in the summer, New Mexico garnered national notice for an early, strict response to the pandemic credited with slowing community spread of the disease. 

Now, New Mexico is seeing a seven-day rolling average of 563 daily cases, increases state officials have mainly attributed to reduced vigilance about "COVID-safe practices," such as wearing masks in public, limiting travel outside the home, maintaining physical distance from others and washing hands frequently. 

The state has also seen a worrying rise in hospitalizations, with 183 individuals hospitalized for the disease Monday, and test positivity rates have climbed above six percent. Prison facilities have also seen a recent increase in new infections. Rapid responses by the New Mexico Environment Department to workplaces reporting infections of COVID-19 have jumped up as well. 

Ahead of today's update, the administration has not previewed any changes to the new restrictions that went into effect on Oct. 17.

Watch the live stream of the conference above, and refresh this page to read the latest live blog updates.

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1:08 p.m. We appear to have a delayed start, but will have that video up at the top of our page as soon as it's available. The conference is being conducted via video conference, with Gov. Lujan Grisham appearing from her residence. She recently completed a two-week quarantine after a possible exposure to a staff member who tested positive. She has since tested negative for COVID-19 twice but has said she would continue to self-isolate.

1:15 p.m. While we're still waiting, maybe we should plug getting flu shots. Local providers for flu vaccinations have been made available online at

1:22 p.m. The late beginning is an echo of the early days of the COVID-19 crisis, when these live streamed conferences often started several minutes or even a quarter-hour late or so. This one is pretty late. On the video conference channel used by reporters, state Human Services Secretary David Scrase seems to be logged in. No word yet about the cause of today's delay. 

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks during a live stream press conference from her residence on Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2020.

1:25 p.m. Looks like there might not be live stream to Facebook today, per the governor's office, due to technical difficulties. But the press conference is getting underway shortly. 

1:31 p.m. The governor says the conference recording will be posted later but live streaming is not working for now. 

Today's data on new cases is not yet available so we are not opening with that today. Lujan Grisham throws to Scrase.

Scrase says the hospitalization surge is worst in Albuquerque, to the point that a patient from Deming was transported to Santa Fe last night. 

With a test positivity rate of 6.5 percent and other data, Scrase says the virus is spreading rapidly throughout the state. There are increases in daily cases in every region of the state. 

1:35 p.m. There are also increases across all age groups and every age group individually has a set a new record for infections, with elderly patients more likely to require hospital care and experience potentially fatal complications. 

Scrase is concerned about where these trends will lead us in the coming weeks. 

He says the state is now missing five of its eight gating criteria for reopening. There are still hospital beds for COVID-19 patients but Scrase says officials are "very concerned" about the next couple of weeks given these trends. 

1:40 p.m. State Environment Department Secretary James Kenney gives briefing on rapid responses at workplaces. Over six weeks, a significant increase. 832 responses between Oct. 12 and 18. 

"Starting today, the NMED is publishing a rapid response COVID-19 watch list," he says, which will list businesses on their second rapid response list. The aim is to let communities which businesses require frequent rapid responses. 

If a business requires four in a four-week period, businesses may need to shut down operations for 14 days "to stop the spread of COVID."

1:47 p.m. We now have live video from KOB-TV! 

The governor announces that the four-rapid-respose rule is effective Friday, Oct. 23.

It applies to food and drink establishments, retail stores, lodging and close-contact businesses such as gyms and salons. 

This is a measure aiming to allow economic activity to continue and target hotspots, the governor says. "We believe this one effort is significant enough ... so that we can get folks back to the whole state managing the virus and limiting the spread." 

New safety measures will be put in place for indoor dining, including a requirement that food and drink establishments complete the state's COVID-19 safety certification program by Oct. 30. (It's free to businesses.) 

Eateries and breweries are also going to be subject to spot testing of employees in high-risk counties. They will also need to keep a log of customers who dine on-site for three weeks to facilitate contact tracing efforts. 

1:51 p.m. Retail spaces to close by 10 p.m. beginning Oct. 23. "Please try and shop alone; do not bring your family," the governor urges. She also encourages ordering ahead, curbside pickup, delivery wherever possible, and simply staying home as much as possible. 

Museums and historical sites are closing as of Friday.

1:55 p.m. The instruction, aided by a graphic depicting the "Daily COVID-Safe Triangle," is to limit travel outside the home to work, self-care and essential errands. 

Lt. Gov. Howie Morales joins to encourage residents that New Mexican can "curb the virus" once again, like earlier in the pandemic, which reached New Mexico seven months ago, and to pay thanks to essential workers.

"We can get through this; we've done it before," Morales says.

2:01 p.m. In "a couple of weeks," if not sooner, the governor says the state may know more about its next moves regarding business activity, but emphasizes the priority will be on limiting hospital surges and deaths. 

"It got out of control fast," she says, because "we let our guard down."

On prisons, no new interventions beyond lessons the governor says have been learned previously about mitigation efforts and surveillance testing in those settings. 

2:08 p.m. Continuing the theme of technical difficulties, this live blogger lost his own connection to the internet for a few minutes during discussion of the economic repercussions of the COVID-19 state protocols as well as protecting vulnerable populations impacted not only by the spread of the virus but by the reduced availability of services. 

2:13 p.m. The state certification program for businesses is an online tool, the governor says in response to reporters' questions, and notes that restaurant and hospitality businesses have been generally effective at instituting effective safety protocols. The logbook will assist in rapid contact tracing and isolation efforts aiming to slow the disease, she says. 

She acknowledges that the travelers' quarantine requirement is hard to enforce but nonetheless travel is associated with the highest risks for community spread, often by people who are not showing symptoms. 

2:19 p.m. "The virus will always live among us," the governor warns in an address that urges New Mexico residents to improve their compliance with guidance against travel and social gatherings, saying residents have relaxed as some sports and non-essential business activity resumed. 

Scrase says data does not suggest to him that there is a need to pull back further on plans for resuming some in-person education services. 

Lujan Grisham pushes back on political rhetoric questioning effectiveness of masks and physical distancing. "We need to be able to campaign safely ... but the pandemic is still here, it is real, it is a deadly virus, and we've got to mitigate spread," she says. 

2:28 p.m. Lujan Grisham says the new program will help as in the past it was difficult to track cases to businesses, such as restaurants, where spread takes place, and says this will be helpful in particular in counties with greater prevalence of the disease. 

2:37 p.m. It is pointed out that 79 restaurants, including individual franchises, have completed the state safety certification program, which the governor concedes is low but is optimistic will grow. 

"There are not nearly enough businesses ... that have taken us up on really knowing what it is, what it can mean, and how it can help you keep COVID from taking hold of your business," she says. 

"Bad actors" among businesses, she says, are few, but many don't know about the services available. 

Asked about teen suicides in the state, Lujan Grisham says the Department of Health has been applying "any number of strategies" including school-based health centers to move behavioral health services to communities, which is now hindered as schools remain closed.

Distance learning is insufficient, Lujan Grisham says, and urges parents reach out as needed to school social workers and health care providers. 

Scrase says emergency room visits for suicidality are not increasing significantly, which he finds "puzzling" considering increased complaints of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. Behavioral health visits are not decreasing significantly, based on data, though there is higher reliance on telehealth services, he reports. 

Of an 18-year-old teen who died of COVID-19 in Eddy County in the past week, the governor says little information is publicly available but it is not believed that she suffered underlying medical conditions. 

2:45 p.m. Returning to prisoners, the governor says that prisoners and staff members have rights as far as the safety of their conditions. "We are at 74 percent of our (capacity) inmate population currently," she says, and the state is working on reintegration and reducing prison populations. 

She affirms the right for inmates to communicate beyond their wardens if they have concerns about isolation of inmates who are sick or the availability of testing. 

"We're required as a state to make sure that we meet the health and related care needs of a prison population, that's a legal requirement," she said, and adds, "The people who all work there are impacted as well and their families are impacted as well." 

Scrase says ongoing weekly testing targets for staff and inmates are being met at facilities for people in the custody of the state corrections department. He is also of the understanding that facilities are able to isolate those who are ill. 

2:52 p.m. Lujan Grisham and Scrase discuss the hospital data. 

"Right now we're seeing a particular level of high volume in Albuquerque," Scrase says, including hospitals that take patients from other parts of the state. The goal is to balance capacity for patients with other health concerns prevalent in the state, such as heart disease, especially when it comes to ICU beds. 

Wrapping up, Lujan Grisham says, "We're not in a good place right now. We are trending poorly and we have the ability to do something about that." 

Acting to slow spread is paramount for reducing deaths and allowing business to continue, she says, and urges wearing masks and "religiously" avoiding social gatherings (even private gatherings with family).

"We really need to get back to the basics in a significant and immediate fashion," she says. 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.