New Mexico loosens business shutdown rules as virus subsides | Coronavirus


Another sign of the decline of the coronavirus pandemic, employers no longer have to temporarily shut down when they notify the state of infected workers four times over a two-week period.

It’s a developing state that state officials are treating with cautious optimism as the faster-spreading delta variant takes hold in New Mexico and the rest of the country.

The measure that required a temporary shutdown if an employer got four “quick responses” from the state was removed as part of the governor’s recent order allowing all businesses to operate at 100% capacity.

The state reacts quickly after an employer informs it that one or more workers have tested positive for the virus. Businesses that were scheduled to close typically reopened within a day or two.

Businesses and customers view the governor’s latest order as liberating after 15 months of various restrictions and lockdowns aimed at tackling the virus.

Widespread vaccinations have reduced the state’s epidemic from a roaring crescendo in early winter to a whisper in July.

The state’s Department of Environment’s rapid response team for workplace infections has seen these cases drop, following similar downward trends in hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 .

“The number of quick responses we conduct has dramatically decreased,” said Sandra Ely, director of the agency’s environmental protection division.

The state recorded 56 rapid responses to businesses with infected employees in the previous week, the lowest weekly number since June 2020 and a fraction of the 2,849 rapid responses in one week during the December peak, said Ely.

Ely noted that a quick response can involve multiple workers who test positive. The team’s role is to consult with employers on what they need to do to contain the virus and ensure workplace safety – and that only becomes an enforcement action if the employer refuses to cooperate.

The team responded 25,219 times over an eight-month period in 2020. In the first six months of this year, the team saw about half of that number of responses – 12,727 – most triggered in winter.

“It’s a very different picture… than where we were just seven months ago,” Ely said. “We have made real progress on this point. ”

Although the restrictions have been lifted, employers must still notify the agency within four hours of a worker’s positive test, she said. The four-hour rule was created late last year to speed up the state’s response to workplace cases.

The agency plans to keep a smaller team in place for at least a year, as health officials fear the delta variant – a more infectious strain – will gain traction during the fall and winter, when viruses tend to spread faster. In addition, other coronavirus mutations could come into play.

“There are too many unknowns,” Ely said. “I think New Mexico is in pretty good shape right now. But I think it would be irresponsible of us to think that we are out of the woods.”

The virus has caused the most temporary closures at health care facilities, retail stores, wholesalers, educational services and restaurants, according to data from the Department of the Environment.

There was a lot of confusion and stress in the early months of the pandemic and the state’s rapid response, with no clear direction until November, said Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association.

“Everyone was panicking, including those making the rules,” Wight said.

For much of the past year, restaurant owners called the association to find out what the procedures were when an employee tested positive, Wight said. With no state rules still in place, she told them to follow the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And while most restaurants offered take-out-only service, minimizing the risk of the virus spreading to customers, owners have expressed concerns about the intense increase and what it could mean for the industry, she declared.

“The concern was how does it spread and what can I do to stop it? Said Wight.

Wight said she was happy the state no longer required restaurants with four quick responses to suspend operations.

Many in the industry are worried if there is a resurgence of COVID-19 in the fall, the state will start shutting down businesses again, Wight said.

“We have to figure out how to do things besides shutting down the economy and putting people out of work,” she said.

Last year, the state used a grant from the US Department of Labor to train the rapid response team, hiring 26 temporary workers, most of whom had been relocated due to the pandemic.

Through attrition, the team has cut that size in half, with most of the departing employees working in permanent jobs in the state, said Bob Genoway, director of the Office of Occupational Health and Safety. State.

Those jobs include the agency’s hazardous waste office, state OSHA, state medical board, and the Department of Health, Genoway said.

“These are all good state government jobs that they were able to get promoted to,” he said.

Ely said the agency is exploring new sources of funding and expects the team to remain at around 13 employees. They will do other work than quick responses, but they will be available in the event of an outbreak, she said.

She stressed that the team’s role is to consult with affected companies on how to prevent the spread of the virus. This could include advice on cleaning up, creating safety procedures, tracing contacts – to determine who else may have been exposed – and ensuring that infected workers are properly quarantined, he said. she declared.

A system was put in place to allow essential businesses such as grocery stores to remain open, even if multiple workers were infected, as long as all employees were tested every two weeks, she said. This allowed 50,000 essential workers to be tested regularly, she said.

Vaccine deployments have not only reduced the number of cases, but made the virus less transmissible, which has changed the way rapid responses are handled, she said.

Before the inoculations, anyone who came in contact with an infected colleague had to be quarantined, Ely said. Now fully vaccinated employees who are exposed can remain at work if they are asymptomatic.

“It’s a better world now that more people are vaccinated,” Ely said. “We can have more people in the workplace. ”

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