Virus infections surpass 1,000 in New Mexico, deaths climb

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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — Confirmed COVID-19 infections surpassed 1,000 on Friday across New Mexico as the pandemic claimed two more lives and tightened its grip over the Navajo Nation in the northwest part of the state.

New infections brought the statewide tally to 1,091 cases, with 19 related deaths. Per-capita rates of infection have surged in sparsely populated San Juan and McKinely counties along the state lines with Arizona and Colorado.

Authorities have begun issuing cease-and-desist orders to nonessential businesses that flout emergency directives to shut down, amid an emergency declaration that bans public gatherings of two or more people.

In one sign of a backlash, the National Rifle Association and allied groups including the New Mexico Shooting Sports Association sued New Mexico’s governor and health department on Friday for leaving gun shops and shooting ranges off the list of essential businesses that can remain open during the public health emergency.

“Uncertain times are precisely when fundamental rights — like the right to keep and bear arms for self-defense — must be protected,” the lawsuit states.

Some feed and hardware stores that are considered essential businesses continue to sell guns and ammunition.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has described a broad approach by her administration to closing businesses to limit transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

“While we as an administration unequivocally support the constitutional right to purchase a firearm, we recognize that right does not correspond to a right to congregate in a store and infect neighbors and workers and public safety officers amid an unprecedented global pandemic,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said in statement.

New Mexico’s judiciary announced Friday that it is preparing for potential requests to force the quarantine of individuals that pose a public health threat due to the coronavirus.

The Health Department has the authority to petition district courts for an order to isolate or quarantine people under the current public health emergency order that has shuttered nonessential businesses and banned public gatherings of more than five people. Agency spokesman David Morgan said no isolation or quarantine orders are currently being sought.

Training is being provided to attorneys who have volunteered to represent people subject to quarantine requests and orders, along with two designated judges in each district.

New Mexico and states across the country have statutory authority to isolate patients during health emergencies. Law enforcement in New Mexico are required to use the least restrictive means to contain infectious disease.

In other coronavirus-related news:

— Monthly food stamp benefits are being increased by an average of $120 for households that don’t already receive the maximum benefit, in an effort to alleviate economic stress. The changes affect about 137,000 households enrolled in the federally subsidized Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that is overseen by the state Human Services Department.

— The same agency also is providing $35 million in financial assistance to hospitals that are losing income as they prepare for a surge in coronavirus patients — in part by canceling elective surgeries and routine procedures that can wait.

— A philanthropic effort aimed at boosting access to scarce medical and protective equipment supplies on the Navajo Nation is being organized by former Gov. Bill Richardson.

The coronavirus has swept with ferocity through the Navajo Nation, where there have been nearly 600 infections and 22 deaths. The reservation is the largest in the U.S., spanning parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, told The Associated Press that his enduring sense of gratitude and friendship with the Navajo people prompted him to provide seed money and launch the humanitarian effort in cooperation with Molina Healthcare and the New Mexico Children’s Foundation.

Richardson fears the pandemic could reach a vast scale of suffering reminiscent of the 19th century forced removal of Navajos in the “Long Walk.”

Thousands of Navajos endured cold, disease and starvation in the U.S. government’s attempt to relocate them to a desolate tract of land hundreds of miles away in eastern New Mexico. In 1868, they signed a treaty with the federal government to secure a return to their homeland.

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