Our view: What COVID-19 took from New Mexico, and what it showed us

Las Cruces Sun-News Editorial Board
68-year-old Jose Garcia, who was sedated and intubated for COVID-19 on Nov. 13, is treated by his daughter, Carolina Garcia, a nurse at Memorial Medical Center on Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, in Las Cruces. Carolina wipes away tears that her father cries as she whispers in his ear.

When the year 2020 arrived, we had no idea what was in store for us. Whatever any of us thought the year would bring, whatever plans we had, 2020 was not about that. 

It wasn't about your last year of high school, your honeymoon, your personal goals, successes or failures. It was the year of COVID-19, a new disease that took loved ones away from us, strained hospital systems, shuttered businesses and shaped daily life in New Mexico for more than one year, as of today. 

Just as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus infiltrates different organs and systems with far-ranging effects on individual health, it has also worked its way into the economy, education, commerce, criminal and civil justice, public spaces and private life — all to devastating effect.

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The U.S. confirmed its first case of COVID-19 disease on Jan. 21, 2020. On that same day, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gave her second State of the State address to a Legislature where she enjoyed Democratic majorities in both chambers.

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives her State of the State address during the opening of the New Mexico legislative session on Tuesday, Jan. 21, 2020: The same day the United States confirmed its first case of COVID-19 disease, ahead of a pandemic that would pre-empt much of her agenda.

Her speech was upbeat and humorous, heavily focused on education and economic development, including her long-running push to provide free college to New Mexicans and open up a new, legal industry in recreational cannabis. New Mexico was flush with cash and positive revenue projections. Oil and gas prices remained high from a recent boom driven by production in the Permian Basin. 

The crisis that would define Lujan Grisham's administration hit our state seven weeks later. 

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On March 11, 2020, New Mexico confirmed positive cases of COVID-19 in three residents. It was the same day the World Health Organization formally declared the disease a pandemic. Oil prices had already begun to decline. Lujan Grisham declared a public health emergency and called for large events to be postponed or canceled. She then used her line item veto to strike over $100 million from the budget

The next day, illustrating how quickly those early decisions were made, Las Cruces Public Schools superintendent Karen Trujillo announced a safety plan for school and meal distribution in the state's second-largest district, only for the Public Education Department to announce an hour later that all public and charter schools would close. 

Districts were challenged to transform themselves, on a dime, into remote learning operations, as did higher education institutions. This immediately exposed serious gaps in internet service statewide, in rural and even some urban areas.

Las Cruces High displays a district sign, alerting people that the school is not open to the general public.

In a single week, unemployment claims in New Mexico leaped from 869 to 17,187, and that was just the beginning of a vertical spike in unemployment as oil and gas prices plummeted and the state initiated an evolving system of public health restrictions that led to temporary layoffs and permanent losses. 

The governor vowed to use her emergency powers to curb community spread, protect hospitals from being overwhelmed the way the world had seen in Italy and other countries, and minimize fatalities as much as possible. 

New Mexico captured national attention for rapidly expanded testing, early gains in "flattening the curve" of daily new cases and, early in 2021, for delivering vaccinations as fast as the state could acquire supply.

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The pandemic took many things from us: Graduations, sports, weddings, funerals, worshipping with a full congregation, hospital and nursing home visits, all the way down to the simple pleasures of going to the movies, meeting up with friends at a bar or nightclub — indeed, most activities outside of our homes. 

Instead, we were asked to stay in as much as possible, to avoid gathering with people or coming close to individuals outside our households, to wash or sanitize our hands frequently — and, of course, to wear face masks in public

The twin crises of the pandemic — the disease itself as well as the subsequent economic recession — turned life upside down without yet giving way to a "new normal" in 2021. 

Lori and Mel Snodgrass arrive at Getz Funeral Home Friday Nov. 6, 2020, for the funeral of Thomas Mobley Jr. of Las Cruces.

Some of what COVID-19 took from us can be measured.

We can report that 3,839 New Mexicans have died, while 160,142 have recovered from varying degrees of illness. The losses can be measured in time since seeing friends and family members, or by the number of businesses that did not survive, or in the public funds diverted from other needs to help manage the crisis. 

Yet these dry measurements do not reach the heart of what the pandemic has cost New Mexicans, the widespread grief illustrated in the upward curve in domestic violence and cries for help over substance abuse, anxiety, depression and other indicators of despair and isolation. 

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Medical staff and essential personnel continued to go to work even through dangerous surges in infections. Others adjusted to working, learning and socializing through video conferencing. Judges called virtual courtrooms to order via telephone. Some contractors, electricians and plumbers found themselves busier than ever, as those with the funds turned their attention to home maintenance and repair. 

Yet even these benefits, the ways in which we made the best out of the situation, were not available for all.

For instance, there were gains in public access to the legislative process, as thousands of New Mexicans participated in committee hearings and followed bills' progress online — but only if they had access to the internet and a device to use. 

Doña Ana Sheriff Kim Stewart distributes cloth face coverings to residents curbside of the Doña Ana County Government Center in Las Cruces as a line of cars stretches out the parking lot and down the street on Friday, May 29, 2020.

When it came to adapting to the pandemic, the haves predictably fared better than the have-nots. The pandemic laid bare sharp inequities in medical services, essential businesses, infrastructure and public safety. Those disparities followed urban/rural lines as well as income, social class and ethnic identity.

During the winter resurgence of COVID-19, a time when New Mexico hospitals overflowed with desperately ill patients and reached the brink of rationing care, the Doña Ana County Fire Department reportedly responded to emergency calls at homes with as many as nine family members living among COVID-19 patients.

"Large multi-generational homes are frequently seen in the County but have increased given economic downturns causing unemployed residents to return home with family," the county stated in a federal grant application. 

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Throughout the year, state health officials have joined the governor in calling for voluntary compliance with public health orders, citing mounting evidence that face masks and other practices have been effective in slowing the spread of coronavirus. New Mexicans were exhorted to cooperate in order to bring cases down, to protect hospitals and the most vulnerable populations while vaccines were under development. We were reminded that we're all in this together.

New Mexicans frequently showed that side, demonstrating resilience under bizarre circumstances. People helped distribute food, learned how to make masks and face shields at home or community workshops, sent letters to nursing home residents, reinvented their businesses, used digital tools to entertain and teach children, to list just a few examples.

Protesters gather in front of Las Cruces restaurant The Game II on Monday, July 13, 2020, to protest the restriction of indoor dining at New Mexico restaurants.

The pandemic also revealed another side of us, as public safety and medical information became political footballs, and some blamed our travails not on the disease but to the measures aiming to contain it, on a policy that unapologetically prioritized human life and our healthcare system, even at a tremendous economic cost

Resistance to masks and social gathering limits were a frequent provocation during the year, many people no doubt taking their cues from former President Donald Trump and other national figures who disdained health precautions, downplayed risks, sidelined medical expertise and presented misinformation.

This, while states were effectively vying in a competitive market for personal protective equipment and testing supplies amid erratic messaging and poor management of the crisis from the White House. 

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As New Mexico waited along with the rest of the world for the development of effective treatments and, most importantly, vaccines to bring transmission under control, public emergency powers and restrictions on business and worship services were tested in court and debated by lawmakers. Some of the latter suggested adding curbs to those powers or at least requiring consultation with the legislative branch. 

And the tension among citizens willing to curtail some personal liberty for the health of the community versus those who ignored or defied such calls could be observed every day, no further away than the local grocery store. 

It would be easy to focus on the best behaviors that COVID-19 inspired in us and marginalize the "bad" behaviors. What that misses, however, is the far-reaching effect of acute traumatic stress on a mass scale. No one escapes the vise. 

Tuskegee Airman James Clayton Flowers receives the second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine in his home Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2021.

The threats to life and security presented by COVID-19 are not altered by anyone's attitude about it, and the impressions of illness, isolation, loss, rage and fear are indelible. Naturally, reactions vary and so does cooperation. 

It is not a facile platitude to say we are all in this together when it comes to a highly infectious disease with a fatality rate far greater than the flu.

Our togetherness is a material reality, and the best practices for mutual education and assistance must include awareness of trauma, the numerous ways it influences those around us and how to absorb the behaviors of those who will not be convinced. 

As we see it at the Las Cruces Sun-News, the day when SARS-CoV-2 is under control is approaching. There is little time or use for anything right now besides assembling the pieces around us, repairing what harm we can and extending care to ourselves and those around us. 

New Mexico state senators chat on the floor of the Senate Chambers on the first day of the 2021 legislative sessions Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2021.

That does not, however, eliminate the necessity for transparency, accountability and good-faith political debate (emphasis on "good-faith") about how policy, law and government may best serve communities. That includes the imperative of justice, of human development and welfare for all.

In the first year of COVID-19, we began to learn how this new disease works, how it spreads and how to manage it. Hospitals, schools and businesses were forced to be creative and learn ways to adapt to a prolonged emergency. 

In the second year of COVID-19, we graduate to new challenges and lessons. President Joe Biden has vowed there will be enough vaccine to inoculate every American adult by the end of May, a pathway to widespread immunity. 

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Meanwhile, the work of economic recovery and community healing, the need to invest in critical infrastructure and redress inequities in healthcare, broadband and other social services, all lie before us as New Mexicans. 

And what are "New Mexicans" if not a union of diverse heritages with a shared history that includes trauma and injustice requiring generations of patient work to redress? The COVID-19 pandemic is now part of that rich history. 

However we come through this, we will be forever changed by what we have lost.

Yet what we have seen gives us confidence that New Mexicans will emerge with greater resilience and resolve, which we will need — not only for the next epidemiological crisis that is assuredly coming, but for confronting our looming challenges over water supply, energy production and the transformations wrought by a changing climate. 

The first year of the COVID-19 pandemic may well feel like a year that was taken from you. 

But now the second year begins, and it is ours.