SANTA FE, New Mexico -- Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham proclaimed at a news conference Thursday with state health officials that "it's still unsafe out there, Covid exists" - but she did make adjustments to quarantine rules and slightly loosened restrictions on nursing home visits.
The governor said there were 212 new cornaviruscases across the state Thursday for a total to date of 21,773. The state also reported two new deaths to take the pandemic's death tally to 669.
Officials said 50% of all cases in the state are now asymptomatic - meaning those infected don't show any outward signs of the virus.
But the rate of positive tests statewide is far lower in New Mexico than neighboring states of Arizona, Texas, Colorado and Oklahoma.
Officials shared a list of counties where the positivity rate was at 5% or below - a key state target; southern New Mexico's Otero County was on it, while Doña Ana County was not. Doña Ana's positivity rate is more than double that benchmark - currently sitting at 11.7%.
Doña Ana County reported 36 new virus cases Thursday for 2,348 total, while Otero County saw 2 new cases among residents and 1 new case among inmates at the Otero County Prison. Otero County's cases now total 197, while the prison - whose inmate outbreaks are counted separately - has tallied a whopping 751 infections to date.
Governor seeks to restart visits at nursing homes
Meanwhile, the governor announced that New Mexico plans to gradually restore visiting opportunities with residents of some nursing homes and other long-term care facilities by arranging outdoor or open-window meetings.
Face masks and Plexiglas dividers will still be used out of an abundance of caution to guard against transmission of Covid-19 at the long-term care facilities.
The initiative will begin next week in a handful of counties with relatively low rates of positive testing for the coronavirus. Because of its high positivity rate, Doña Ana County is not included - but Otero County will be a part of the new initiative.
Lujan Grisham and state health officials said social isolation is taking a toll on elderly and disabled people. In-person visits have been limited to hospice care patients for months.
The governor invoked her own frustrations and despair in trying to maintain contact with her mother at a nursing home in Albuquerque.
Governor overhauls quarantine rules for travelers
The governor on Thursday also announced overhauls to the pandemic isolation rules for travelers.
New Mexico is now allowing two new exceptions to self-quarantine requirements for travelers entering or returning to the state as health officials try to keep outside virus outbreaks at bay, the governor's office announced just prior to the briefing.
People seeking medical care or taking day trips to attend to essential parenting duties will no longer be subject to 14-day self-quarantine requirements.
The new executive order from Lujan Grisham extends the requirement that travelers self-isolate at a residence or lodging facility upon arrival or return to New Mexico — with broad exceptions for workers in essential businesses, the federal government and the airline industry.
State health officials are wrestling with how to insulate New Mexico from neighboring states with lighter public health restrictions and uncontained virus outbreaks that can no longer be traced and isolated. The order allows the state to impose quarantines on people who don't comply, though it was unclear if or when authorities might begin involuntary enforcement.
“Individuals who are quarantined upon arrival into the state may leave the residence or place of lodging in which they are self-quarantining only for the purposes of medical care,” the governor said. “Family or household members may visit a quarantined person, but those visitors must then self-quarantine themselves.”
The new order responds to “the absence of a coherent federal strategy to slowing the spread of Covid-19," the governor said.
The self-quarantine restrictions apply for the duration of New Mexico's public health emergency. The state has delayed any further reopening of the economy until at least September.
New Mexico's infection and death surge tapering off
A surge of virus infections and related deaths in New Mexico appears to be tapering off, and the governor on Thursday was generally complimentary about compliance with state health orders that include mandatory wearing of face masks and a ban on public gatherings of more than four people.
“We're seeing good trends, case counts coming down consistently,” Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Mexico decreased over the past two weeks, going from 286 new cases per day on July 22 to 221 new cases per day on Aug. 5, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
Comparing seven-day averages of new cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in test results. The full number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
Average statewide daily deaths have declined from 5.3 to 4.6 over the same period.
State reports 21 virus cases at beef packing plant
In another development, a state agency reported that 21 employees at a meatpacking plant in Roswell tested positive for Covid-19. It's the second meatpacking facility in the state to have a major outbreak - the first was Stampede Meat in Santa Teresa back in May.
The New Mexico Environment Department has advised USA Beef Packing LLC owner Jose Madrid on how to handle the cases, the Roswell Daily Record newspaper reported. Madrid said he is cooperating with a state investigation into what caused the infection to spread.
Agency reports show the company reported its first positive test on July 28, and it had two by July 31. The number of cases jumped to 21 by Wednesday.