(Editor’s Note: This headline and article have been updated to include the most recent number of positive COVID-19 patients in New Mexico, and differs from the coverage in our print edition this week.
The article has also been updated to include the closure of Rio Communities City Hall to the public, as well as new orders on businesses, including restaurants, theaters and lodging.)
With the novel coronavirus COVID-19 officially labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization, agencies and organizations across the world, country and Valencia County are canceling events and closing up shop.
The city of Belen has consolidated its operations to the Belen fire station and is strongly encouraging residents to do any business they can with the city, such as paying utility bills, online or by drop box.
In the village of Los Lunas, residents are asked to do the same and limit contact with staff and each other as much as possible.
Village facilities such as the Daniel Fernandez Community Center are closed until the virus has passed, and the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts and Los Lunas Public Library are closed and events been canceled.
Senior centers are closed county wide and meals are being handed out by “drive-thru” method.
Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp said the term pandemic is more alarming than what it is.
“All that means is it’s something that has spread throughout the world,” Culp said. “It’s in several countries and now it’s here. It doesn’t look like it’s going to wipe out a lot of people like the 1918 Spanish flu; it’s a matter of it has spread.”
The last pandemic was the H1N1 flu in 2009.
“We’re looking at best practices to help prevent the spread,” the fire chief said. “One of the best things you can do is wash your hands, and quit shaking hands with everyone.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported that older adults and people with serious, chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and lung disease are at higher risk of getting very sick from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.
Reported illnesses have ranged from very mild, including some with no reported symptoms, to severe, including death, according to the CDC website.
The virus has an incubation period of up to 14 days, and symptoms include fever, cough and shortness of breath.
Schools closed, make-up days waived
On Thursday, March 12, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced all public schools in the state would close through April 3 in an attempt to curb the spread of the virus.
Dr. Ryan Stewart, New Mexico secretary of education, said the state would waive the requirements on instructional hours and not require students to make up the missed days of classes.
“There will be no wage gaps,” Grisham said during a press conference broadcast via Facebook Live last Friday. “Schools and districts will be paying employees as if there was no closure, as if school was in session.”
School breakfast, lunch, available for pick up
Los Lunas Schools is distributing breakfast and lunch between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. every weekday at several school sites. Meals are “grab and go” and are free to students. Adult meals are $4.
Belen Consolidated Schools is distributing breakfast and lunch from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. at all of its school sites.
Additionally, on Wednesday, BCS started delivering meals by school bus to some of the more remote areas of the district.
“The bus drivers and their aids are contacting our riders, letting them know about the deliveries,” said BCS Superintendent Diane Vallejos. “We will still be serving meals at all our sites.”
On Monday, 647 meals were served at BCS school sites. Students can pick up meals at any school that is most convenient for them.
Anyone with questions about the delivered student meals can call the BCS transportation department at 966-1175.
School of Dreams Academy has five meal sites, which will be “grab and go” from 10 a.m. to noon.
Belen teachers will provide instructional materials
Vallejos said BCS teachers have been asked to remain in contact with their students during the three-week closure — elementary teachers a minimum of twice a week and middle school and secondary students at lease once a week.
“We are trying to provide every educational opportunity we can to our students,” Vallejos said. “This work is an attempt to maintain the education level of our students; these are not new lessons.”
Vallejos said if parents have questions they can contact their child’s school between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. Teachers will be working from home and only come in if they need to use district equipment, she said.
“Communication will be done online if we can. That’s why it’s important to know whether a student has internet access, so we can get them information by hard copy,” Vallejos said.
Grocery hotline for senior, disabled adults
New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services has set up a hotline for people unable to access groceries at this time.
If you are a senior or disabled adult and cannot access groceries, call 800-432-2080. Leave a message with your name, telephone number and the city/town you reside in. Your call will be returned within two hours or sooner.
Congregate senior meals canceled; “to go” meals
Congregate meals at senior centers throughout the county have been suspended.
Instead, seniors can go to meal sites during regular meal times to pick up meals and take them home. Home delivery meals will continue.
Seniors who cannot drive to the center should call 864-2663 for a phone assessment and to be placed on the program’s home delivery meal list.
Transportation to and from centers is also suspended at this time, and there will be no dances or gatherings at senior centers through out Valencia County.
If necessary, the meal program will transition to all home deliveries, adding congregate meal-goers to the home-bound delivery service temporarily.
All other activities at senior centers, such as pool and bingo, are canceled.
28 positive COVID-19 cases statewide
As of Wednesday, March 18, the New Mexico Department of Health is reporting there are 28 positive COVID-19 cases in the state. The first case was reported on Wednesday, March 11.
As of Monday, the DOH website indicated the tests performed in New Mexico by the state scientific laboratory division of NMDOH and TriCore Reference Laboratories no longer need to be verified as positive by the CDC.
So far there haven’t been any positive cases reported in Valencia County. The majority are in Bernalillo County to the north.
There are a total of 16 cases in Bernalillo County, including a man in his 80s who is hospitalized.
There are five cases in Santa Fe County, four in Sandoval County, two in Socorro County and one in Taos County.
According to NMDOH, the majority of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 have either traveled to an area where the virus was active or come in “close household contact” with a previously diagnosed person.
Officials are investigating a new case of a Bernalillo County woman in her 40s as a possible community spread case because she had no known exposure to travelers. If confirmed, this would be the first community-spread case in New Mexico.
The NMDOH has active investigations into each of the positive patients, which includes contact-tracing, and swabs of symptomatic individuals who have had contact with the positive cases.
New Mexico Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel issued an order Thursday, March 12, prohibiting all mass gatherings, which are defined as any public or private gathering of 100 people or more “in a single room or connected space in close proximity to one another” both indoors and outdoors.
Family gatherings such as weddings or funerals, and locations such as airports, retail stores, hospitals, schools and businesses are not included.
On Wednesday, March, 18, the governor ordered all restaurants, bars and other eateries close to dine-in customers. Customers can still order food for delivery or pick-up.
The order also closed indoor shopping malls, recreational facilities, health clubs, resort spas, athletic facilities, theaters (including movie theaters) and flea markets.
All casinos and horse-racing facilities are also required to close, except for those on tribal land, which is beyond the state’s authority. However, most tribal casinos have closed voluntarily.
A resort spa is a facility that provides both lodging and professional therapeutic or relaxation services, including fitness and wellness programs.
Salons and barbershops may remain open but, in accordance with the order, are strongly encouraged to limit operations to the greatest extent possible.
The staff at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus is following the same precautions implemented at the main Albuquerque campus and closing for an extended spring break, Monday, March 16, through Sunday, April 5.
Events scheduled on campus during that time have been postponed, and the campus library is completely closed to staff, students and the public.
Use best practices
Chief Culp said residents should take time to regularly clean and disinfect high-traffic areas, remember to cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing and to avoid close contact with people who have symptoms of COVID-19.
“As the governor said, if you are showing signs or symptoms, don’t go directly to the doctor or urgent care,” Culp said. “Call the hotline first.”
The statewide DOH hotline is 855-600-3453.
The chief said the department does have a supply of masks on hand to protect its first responders.
VC limiting contact
The Valencia County office of community development has made operational changes to limit person-to-person contact, including renewing business licenses by mail, taking zoning and other land use applications by mail or email, of through the county office drop box in the lobby of the planning and zoning office in the south hall of the county administration building, 444 Luna Ave.
Until further notice, the department won’t issue any temporary use permits for special events, and meetings with staff must be scheduled in advance.
Code enforcement complaints will be reviewed and emergency situations will be addressed, but non-emergency situations, such as overgrown weeds, will be tracked and citations issued once the emergency restrictions have been lifted.
Community development can be reached at 866-2050 and code enforcement at 866-2054.
Tomé Hill pilgrimage
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe announced on Monday group pilgrimages, such as those up Tomé Hill and to Santuario de Chimayo were postponed until the DOH lifts the public health order.
Thousands of people come from around the county and the state on Good Friday to walk to the top of the hill.
Andrea Padilla, president of the board of the town of Tomé Land Grant which owns the hill, said the annual pilgrimage isn’t something that can really be canceled.
“People will go up anyway. If they do, there won’t be medical assistance if the county won’t be doing it,” Padilla said.
As a precaution, Padilla said the land grant will be posting signs at the base of the hill warning Good Friday pilgrims they climb at their own risk.
“If there’s an emergency, they will have to call 911 and wait,” she said. “Some of us might be there to tell people that on Good Friday.”
Culp said he has reached out to Padilla to talk about how to handle the pilgrimage given the archdiocese’ notification.
“We realize people are still going to do it,” the chief said. “We will revisit this with the land grant around the beginning of April.”
Belen in preparation mode
Belen Fire Chief Brett Ruff said one thing people need to remember is that COVID-19 is viral, not bacterial.
“This is a living organism. I’m not saying don’t use hand sanitizers, but most of those are antibacterial and won’t kill a virus,” Ruff said. “Hand washing is still the best.”
The chief recommended singing “Happy Birthday” twice or reciting the alphabet while you wash your hands to get in the recommended 20 seconds of wash time.
In addition to frequent hand washing, Ruff recommended city employees keep workstations clean, wipe down computer keyboards and mice, and clean germ-carrying cellphones.
“Anything that’s touched frequently — doorknobs, light switches, fridge handles, faucets,” he said. “Yes, this needs to be treated seriously but it’s not something to panic about.”
City residents can pay their utility bill online or by phone, by using the payment drop box at city hall or at the fire station.
LL taking precautionary measures
Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon said all of their staff is equipped with sanitizer and detergentding to a public statement released by the village of Los Lunas Parks and Recreation division, all programming held at the Fred Luna Multigenerational Center will be postponed until further notice.
The village is working with the Valencia Regional Emergency Communication Center to make sure they are getting information about the people who call so first responders can differentiate what kinds of calls are coming in and what they are sending the responders into.
Rio Communities urging self-care and caution
Peggy Gutjahr, Rio Communities mayor pro tem, announced Wednesday afternoon that the city of Rio Communities City Hall will be closed to the public from Thursday, March 19, through Friday, April 10, unless otherwise announced.
City staff will continue to provide services by reporting to their worksites as usual unless they have been authorized to work remotely.
The staff directory is also available on their website at riocommunities.net.
You can also call City Hall at 861-6803 or 861-6804.
City councilors can be reached by email or phone at, Mayor Pro-tem Peggy Gutjahr, [email protected], 864-6908; Councilor Bill Brown, [email protected], 864-0718; Councilor Joshua Ramsell, [email protected], 720-9066 and Councilor Jim Winters, [email protected], 864-3671.
The workshop scheduled for 10 a.m., Wednesday, March 25, has been canceled; however, the regular 6 p.m. business meeting agenda has been cut to essential items only.
The meeting will be limited to a total of 10 people, but will be streamed via the city’s Facebook page.
“There are things we still have to do — some necessary action. It might be a condensed agenda. City Council meetings will continue as presently stated using preventive measures, until further notice,” Gutjahr said.
The Rio Grande Fire Department main station and Tierra Grande station are taking precautions to keep both the public as well as themselves safe, which includes limiting large gatherings.
City residents will be notified by eblast if anything more changes within Rio Communities.
BF Community Center cancels large events
Evening and weekend dances and music performances at the Bosque Farms Community Center have been canceled through April 30 or longer if necessary.
Line dance classes have been canceled until further notice, but most small group activities will continue uninterrupted.
People wanting to come to the center should call 869-5133 in advance to verify what activities are taking place.
VCSO makes adjustments to limit contact
The Valencia County Sheriff’s Office has made adjustments to its operations, effective immediately.
VCSO asks residents calling for law enforcement assistance who are not feeling well to let the dispatcher know their condition.
Minor incidents, such as minor crashes, civil issues or thefts with no suspect information will be handled by phone.
For administrative assistance, such as obtaining a police report or record, VCSO will send those documents either by email or U.S. mail at no cost.
Anyone needing civil actions which are regularly handled by the sheriff’s office should contact Melanie Carter at 866-2406 for further information.
Workforce centers suspend in-person services
All Labor Relations Division offices will be closed to the public. Assistance will be provided by phone, email or mail correspondence only.
The Unemployment Insurance Operations Center can be reached at 1-877-664-6984, 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday though Friday.
Additional information is available at dws.state.nm.us.
MVD offices to operate by appointment only
Motor Vehicle Division field offices will be serving customers by appointment only.
Customers needing to conduct a transaction that can’t be done online, such as getting a first-time driver’s license, can schedule an appointment online at secure.mvd.newmexico.gov/InlineOnline/.
The MVD call center can be reached at 888-683-4636.
Any transactions that can be done online, such as renewals of licenses and vehicle registrations, should be done online at mvd.online.com.
New Mexico Rail Runner Express suspends service
New Mexico’s commuter train will be out of service through Friday, April 3.
Terry Doyle, the director of Rio Metro Regional Transit District, said there is no indication that anyone has contracted the virus by riding the train or that anyone who has tested positive for the virus has used the Rail Runner.
While the Rail Runner will not be running for the next three weeks, there are no plans at this time to suspend or curtail service provided by Rio Metro buses and shuttle services. Rio Metro has fixed routes and on-call ride service in Valencia County.
Additional funding for emergency response
Gov. Lujan Grisham has issued five executive orders authorizing up to $3,250,000 of additional funding for emergency response and disaster relief efforts to address the effects of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The funding will be used to assist in humanitarian relief, public health measures and to benefit families and children impacted by school closures.
Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.