SANTA FE, New Mexico — Four people in New Mexico have tested positive for COVID-19 in the state’s first known cases of infection, prompting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to declare a public health emergency on Wednesday and advise that all large public events be postponed to limit the spread of the virus. (You can watch her entire remarks in the video player above.)
The fourth and most recent case, announced Wednesday evening, is a woman in her 60s from Santa Fe County who recently traveled to the New York City area.
The three cases announced earlier in the day involved a husband and wife in their 60s at Socorro County, along with a woman in her 70s in the Albuquerque area.
The infected couple recently traveled to Egypt, and the older woman in Bernalillo County recently returned from a trip to New York City. All four individuals were isolated at their homes to prevent transmission of the virus.
"We expect to see more travel-related cases," said state Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase.
Officials in Las Cruces emphasized that none of the three confirmed cases were in the Cruces area. "City operations continue as normal and no events will be cancelled at this time; however, the City of Las Cruces is taking additional precautions to help mitigate the potential spread of person-to-person illnesses," officials said in a statement.
State Epidemiologist Chad Smelser said the three infections appeared to be a result of travel and not transmission within local communities.
“We will actively search out the people that they came in contact with,” he said.
Lujan Grisham, a former state Health Department secretary, reiterated the importance of washing hands and minimizing contact with other people where coughing or sneezing can enable transmission.
“We are proactively and aggressively canceling large public events that we have control over,” she said. “And we are advising strongly that local government and the private sector follow suit.”
Nonessential state employees in a workforce of some 20,000 people were instructed to work remotely from home if possible. Lujan Grisham suggested that private employers consider similar measures and urged individuals to rethink routines that may involve eating out or visits to assisted living facilities to see relatives — citing her own mother as an example.
“We are not panicked. We are prepared,” she said.
Organizers of the annual Gathering of Nations postponed the annual April powwow that draws tens of thousands of indigenous people from around the world to Albuquerque.
The state also is prohibiting out-of-state travel for work by its employees.
The New Mexico Health Department has emphasized concerns about the elderly and plans to deploy public health nurses this week to assisted care facilities. About one-fifth of the population is over 65 in a state of 2.1 million.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.
More than 80,000 people in China have been diagnosed with the coronavirus. More than 61,000 have recovered.
Socorro Mayor and physician Ravi Bhasker said the local couple who tested positive live outside city limits and isolated themselves after returning to the state. Bhasker said he limit virus exposure in his work as a doctor by treating and taking swabs from patients with virus symptoms while they sit in their vehicles beyond his office.
Lujan Grisham said the state is “nowhere near our capacity to effectively test” all residents, citing a current capacity to test 2,400 individuals.
No-cost testing is being provided by the state to select groups based on travel and prior negative tests that rule out influenza. Lujan Grisham acknowledged that payment may be required by private insurance for testing and treatment.
In Las Cruces, Gadsden, Albuquerque and Santa Fe, school districts placed restrictions on staff and student travel. The University of New Mexico has canceled university-related travel to areas in the U.S. where a state of emergency has been declared and to foreign countries flagged by the Centers for Disease Control.
The CDC has assigned $6.5 million to New Mexico state and local authorities for responses to the coronavirus, according to the White House and Department of Health and Human Services.
State health officials declined to release figures on the number of available hospital beds or ventilators in the event of widespread hospitalizations.