LOS LUNAS — The New Mexico Department of Health took the unusual step of naming the specific location of a COVID-19 exposure last week after a department spokesman says the patient was being “uncooperative.”
On Thursday, June 25, DOH posted a press release on the its COVID-19 specific website, cv.nmhealth.org, reporting the exposure of parishioners of the Calvary Chapel New Harvest Church in Los Lunas to the disease.
Since the first case of COVID-19 was detected in the state in March, the department has steadfastly refused to disclose the location of exposures, saying it was medically protected information.
When pressed for why it released the church’s name as the exposure point, DOH media manager David Morgan said via email DOH was concerned about at least one COVID-19 positive patient.
“… a member of the church staff — that is being uncooperative and putting others in that church community at risk,” Morgan wrote last Thursday. “We continue to investigate the situation and will work to trace parishioners for possible exposure and testing.”
When contacted for comment that same day, a church staff member asked the News-Bulletin to call back the next day. When the reporter called back, we were referred to a video on Facebook released on Friday, June 25, by New Harvest Pastor David Maestas.
In his video message, Maestas says DOH did not contact the church about the exposure.
“As far as we, as a church, being noncooperative, I spoke with Carolyn with the governor’s office,” Maestas said. “I was told we would be contacted by DOH; so far no messages, no calls.”
Morgan contends the department informed the church and tried countless times to “dialogue with the pastor and staff on the subject with inconsistent results.”
In a second press release that has since been removed from the department’s main website, nmhealth.org, DOH gave an explanation of why it named the church.
“The department is taking the unusual step of reporting the exposure on behalf of the church after the church leaders, reported to the Department of Health as being out of compliance with the public health orders, declined to notify their parishioners,” the release read, in part.
When asked why there were two different releases, Morgan said one was an incorrect version. The release with the additional language about the church leaders was removed the evening of Thursday, June 25.
Morgan also didn’t respond to questions asking why the press release wasn’t sent to the News-Bulletin. The newspaper became aware of the situation after Albuquerque television stations republished the press release on the COVID-19 specific site; it’s unclear whether the stations received the information directly from DOH or whether they discovered it independently.
Both Morgan and Maestas indicated there was only one person associated with the church who tested positive for COVID-19 to their knowledge.
“The person called and told us they may have been exposed out of state. The person quarantined immediately and tested,” the pastor said in last Friday’s video. “They did everything right. They tested positive and anyone they may have been in contact with was informed.”
Maestas said all those contacts tested negative, and the person who did test positive has not been a part of the congregation since they notified the church of their potential exposure.
While Morgan said DOH would not give a specific date of the exposure, he did indicate it was within recent weeks.
New Harvest holds services on Wednesday evenings and has two sermons on Sunday mornings; the church was closed due to plumbing issues on Sunday, June 21, and didn’t have in-person services, Maestas said.
Churches were allowed to resume in-person services at 25 percent capacity on May 17; New Harvest returned to in-person services that day.
In last week’s video, the pastor questioned why the church was named by the department.
“Where are the news reports on (big) box stores? Where are the news reports on the rest of state? 11,192 cases confirmed (at that time) in New Mexico. One case of exposure that may been from out of state and the church is blamed,” he said. “The reality is churches are being attacked and blamed … any opportunity to bash churches is shouted from the roof tops. We need to stand up for churches.”
In his email, Morgan said there are ethical and moral obligations for any organization to notify the people who are a part of it, whether it’s employees, customers or parishioners.
“The vast majority of organizations contacted by the Department of Health understand the potential seriousness of this virus and do everything possible to aid our agency with the information necessary to complete contact investigations and alert people to the circumstances — even offer them the chance to test for the virus — whether they show symptoms or not,” he wrote. “Unfortunately, in any case where those organizations fall short of those civic responsibilities, it is the Department of Health’s medical obligation to take on the responsibility itself.”
He added that the department’s announcement of the church’s name was atypical of the department.
“But it is done only out of necessity and with the utmost respect for the health and well-being of the people of New Mexico, to include the parishioners of Calvary Chapel New Harvest Church,” he concluded.
Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.