The highlights:

• This weekend’s St. Patrick’s Day Balloon Rallye in Belen has been canceled

• Senior meal sites will be serving lunch “to go” starting Friday, March 13

• All public schools in Valencia County and across the state will be closed for three weeks starting Monday, March 16.

• The Archdiocese of Santa Fe is closing its churches and schools effective immediately.

• Washing your hands for 20 seconds is one of the key ways to prevent the spread of the virus

• If you have symptoms of or think you’ve been exposed to the COVID-19 viru, call the statewide Department of Health hotline at 855-600-3453.


Coronavirus COVID-19

With the novel coronavirus COVID-19 now officially labeled a pandemic by the World Health Organization, local agencies and governing bodies are taking precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.

Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp said the term pandemic is more alarming that what it is.

“All that means is it’s something that has spread throughout the world,” Culp said. “It’s in several countries and now it’s here. It doesn’t look like it’s going to wipe out a lot of people like the 1918 Spanish flu; it’s a matter of it has spread.”

The last pandemic was the H1N1 flu in 2009.

“We’re looking at best practices to help prevent the spread,” the fire chief said. “One of the best things you can do is wash your hands, and quit shaking hands with everyone.”

Six presumptive positive cases in the state

As of Thursday, March 12, the New Mexico Department of Health has identified six people in New Mexico who have tested presumptive positive for coronavirus.

A presumptive positive result means state lab testing has identified COVID-19 as the cause of the illness, but the Center for Disease Control has not confirmed the results.

South of Valencia County, a Socorro County couple in their 60s who recently traveled to Egypt, and to the north, a woman in her 70s in Bernalillo County and a Santa Fe County woman in her 60s, both of who had traveled to the New York City area recently, were the first four presumptive positive cases.

A fifth case was identified Thursday morning — a Bernalillo County woman in her 40s. The department of health is investigating a possible travel link in that case.

The sixth case, a Santa Fe County woman in her 50s with known recent international travel to Italy, was identified Thursday afternoon.

All six people are isolated in their homes.

The NMDOH has active investigations into each of the presumptive positive patients, which includes contact-tracing, said Dr. Chad Smelser, of the Department of Health, and swabs of symptomatic individuals who have had contact with the positive cases.

Congregate senior meals canceled

Starting Friday, March 13, congregate meals at senior centers throughout the county will be suspended at the recommendation of the Non-Metro Area Agency on Aging, said Valencia County Community Development Director Nancy Gonzales.

“Instead, seniors can come to meal sites during regular meal times to pick up meals and take them home. Home delivery meals will continue,” Gonzales said. “Transportation to and from centers is also suspended at this time.”

There will also be no dances or gatherings at the senior centers through out Valencia County.

Gonzales said Non-Metro AAA advised the county they expected these restrictions to be in place through April 30 or until they are no longer necessary.

If necessary, Gonzales said the meal program will transition to all home deliveries, adding congregate meal-goers to the home-bound delivery service temporarily.

All other activities at senior centers, such as pool and bingo, are canceled.

“We are using this time to deep clean and sanitize our facilities,” she said. “Now more than ever, that is so important.”

If anyone has questions about senior meal services at any of the sites, they should call 864-2663.

Mass gatherings prohibited

New Mexico Department of Health Cabinet Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel issued an order Thursday morning prohibiting all mass gatherings, which are defined as any public or private gathering of 100 people or more “in a single room or connected space in close proximity to one another” both indoors and outdoors.

Family gatherings such as weddings or funerals, and locations such as airports, retail stores, hospitals, schools and businesses are not included.

Belen, Los Lunas Schools and School of Dreams Academy to close for three weeks

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Public Education Department and the New Mexico Department of Health announced on Thursday, March 12, that all New Mexico K-12 public schools will close for three weeks, beginning Monday, March 16, in response to the ongoing international novel coronavirus pandemic.

In Valencia County, this includes all schools within the Belen Consolidated Schools district, Los Lunas Schools district and the School of Dreams Academy.

The closure will begin at the end of the school day, Friday, March 13. Both BCS and Los Lunas are on spring break this week.

UNM-Valencia campus limiting contact

The staff at the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus is following the same precautions implemented at the main Albuquerque campus.

“We’re doing things like limiting meetings to no more than 50 people, professors are shifting classes to online or hybrid classes so they don’t have to be in the classroom as much,” said Jon Lechel, UNM-Valencia public relations specialist.

“We are following main’s protocols and doing everything we can to keep the students and community as healthy as possible,” he said.

The campus administration did cancel and upcoming Earth Day event that would have hosted several hundred kindergarten through 12th grade students.

“We’ve eliminated upcoming travel for staff and just trimmed down on nonessential gatherings and events,” Lechel said.

Travel freeze

Valencia County Manager Danny Monette said the county has frozen all out-of-state travel for employees, as has the state on order of the governor.

“Right now it’s important that people not panic but they need to be aware,” Monette said.

Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova said the city is canceling in-state travel and cutting all nonessential spending.

As recommended during the governor’s address, the village of Los Lunas will suspend all nonessential, travel out of state through April 30, and will re-evaluate in April.

County encourages best practices

Culp said residents should take time to regularly clean and disinfect high-traffic areas, remember to cover their mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing and to avoid close contact with people who have symptoms of COVID-19.

“As the governor said, if you are showing signs or symptoms, don’t go directly to the doctor or urgent care,” Culp said. “Call the hotline first.”

The statewide DOH hotline is 855-600-3453.

The chief said the department does have a supply of masks on hand to protect its first responders.

One large event Culp and staff are looking at closely is the annual pilgrimage to Tomé Hill. Thousands of people come from around the county and the state on Good Friday to walk to the top of the hill.

Typically, county EMS has medical tents staged along the main highways and staff covering the area to assist with any medical needs of participants.

“We’re meeting (Friday, March 13) to discuss the walk. It’s not an event we can cancel, since it’s a pilgrimage,” Culp said. “We need to evaluate our approach in how we participate in it and look at our options.”

Bottom line, the fire chief said the advice coming from epidemiologists is to stay home if you’re sick and not having respiratory distress, wash your hands frequently and keep frequently touched surfaces clean.

“We are monitoring the situation closely,” he said. “Ultimately, don’t panic.”

Belen in preparation mode

The Belen city council convened an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon to go over preparation and prevention strategies.

“Calling an ‘emergency’ meeting is the only way the council can meet on short notice,” said Belen Mayor Jerah Cordova. “We don’t have an emergency in town.”

Belen Fire Chief Brett Ruff said one thing people need to remember is that COVID-19 is viral, not bacterial.

“This is a living organism. I’m not saying don’t use hand sanitizers, but most of those are antibacterial and won’t kill a virus,” Ruff said. “Hand washing is still the best.”

The chief recommended singing “Happy Birthday” twice or reciting the alphabet while you wash your hands to get in the recommended 20 seconds of wash time.

In addition to frequent hand washing, Ruff recommended city employees keep workstations clean, wipe down computer keyboards and mice, and clean germ-carrying cellphones.

“Anything that’s touched frequently — doorknobs, light switches, fridge handles, faucets,” he said. “(Bleach) wipes and Lysol will kill the virus.

“Yes, this needs to be treated seriously but it’s not something to panic about.”

Cordova said the city would not be closing city facilities at this time.

“We will keep a close eye on the situation and if things should change, that is something we would consider,” he said. “A lot of times, the facilities elsewhere that have closed have been shuttered for a few days to do a deep cleaning.”

Cordova also stressed to city employees the importance of having effective communication not only within the city but with the public.

“We want to make sure any information exchanged is accurate and factual,” he said. “Be very careful about the information we’re putting out publicly. There are experts well beyond us at the DOH and CDC. Let’s not go out there and pretend we know better.”

City finance director Rosanne Peralta reminded city residents they can pay their utility bill online or by phone, or by using the payment drop box at city hall.

“They don’t have to come into the office,” Peralta said.

Los Lunas taking precautionary measures

Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon said all of their staff is equipped with sanitizer and detergent to clean with.

“We have evaluated all of the facilities and their functions. Any functions that have over 100 (people), we are canceling,” Gabaldon said.

The village is still determining which specific activities are being canceled and which are being postponed until further notice.

According to a public statement released by the village of Los Lunas Parks and Recreation division, all programming held at the Fred Luna Multigenerational Center will be postponed until further notice.

“We have canceled all travel for our staff that’s traveling out of state to conferences, even conferences within the state. We’ve canceled people from coming in from out of state as well,” Gabaldon said. “Really, it’s just to follow what the department of health and the governor has asked us to do.”

The village is working with the Valencia Regional Emergency Communication Center to make sure they are getting information about the people who call in that way they can differentiate what kinds of calls are coming in and what they are sending the responders into.

“We made sure we’re disseminating that information to all the crews of how to protect themselves and the community, but really how to educate the community on their own care as far as promoting hygiene,” Gabaldon said.

He wanted to emphasize the fact that these are precautionary measures and that there have yet to be cases of the virus in Valencia County.

Rio Communities urging self-care and caution

Peggy Gutjahr, Rio Communities mayor pro tem, said if concerns arise at city hall, they have developed a plan for employees to work from home.

“We have not made a decision about canceling the next city council meeting,” Gutjahr said of the meeting scheduled for 6 p.m., Wednesday, March 25. “There are things we still have to do — some necessary action. It might be a condensed agenda. City Council meetings will continue as presently stated using preventive measures, until further notice.”

Because the city of Rio Communities doesn’t have regular large gatherings, Gutjahr said they don’t have to worry about that.

“I want to encourage the citizens of Rio Communities to be proactive with self-care, remain calm and follow the CDC and New Mexico Public Health guidelines,” she said. “Our council and staff, while following these guidelines, are taking steps to keep the government running.”

Gutjahr said they are referring questions about the virus and health to the statewide number, 853-600-3433.

The Rio Grande Fire Department main station and Tierra Grande are taking precautions to keep both the public they serve as well as themselves safe, which includes limiting large gatherings.

City residents will be notified by eblast if anything changes within Rio Communities.

“Working calmly together we can get through this current issue,” Gutjahr said.

Bosque Farms Community Center cancels large events

In response to the heightened concerns about COVID-19, evening and weekend dances and music performances at the Bosque Farms Community Center have been canceled through April 30 or longer if necessary, said center director Rose Poitras.

This includes the upcoming St. Paddy's Sock Hop, Fiddlers and Musicians of New Mexico, Plumb Adequate and Peralta Playboys.

During this same time period, congregate meals will be provided in a "drive through" method, where seniors stay in their vehicles and community center staff will set up a station to hand them a meal through their car window

This service will be available between 11:45 a.m. and 12:15 p.m., and will be implemented in the next few business days.  In the mean time, meals can be picked up for "carry out" with seniors coming into the center and taking meals home with them.

The director said line dance classes have been canceled until further notice, but most small group activities will continue uninterrupted. 

Poitras advised people wanting to come to the center to call 869-5133 in advance to verify what activities were taking place.

Please stay home if you are sick, feel like you may be coming down with something or have been in close, prolonged contact with others who are sick,” Poitras urged.

Peralta proceeding with caution

Peralta Town Clerk Kori Taylor said the town’s staff is proceeding with caution.

“We talked to our staff this morning and told them if they don’t feel good, don’t come in and watch their symptoms,” Taylor said.

Archdiocese of Santa Fe halting church services indefinitely

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe is closing its churches and schools effective immediately until further notice, Archbishop John Wester told the Albuquerque Journal late Thursday.

St. Mary's Catholic School in Belen will close for three weeks, starting on Monday, March 16.

Wester said the archdiocese, the largest in the state, would clarify on Friday how such things as weddings, funerals, baptisms and confirmations will be handled.

Wester made the decision following the announcement by state officials that all K-12 public schools in New Mexico would be closed for three weeks.

Symptoms and response

People with novel COVID-19 have reported symptoms of fever, cough or trouble breathing. Symptoms may also include runny nose, headache, sore throat and a general feeling of being unwell.

Some individuals seem to be at higher risk for more serious COVID-19 illness, including older adults and people who have severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease.

The NMDOH is asking anyone with symptoms of COVID-19 or who may have come in contact with someone with the virus to call 855-600-3453 for assistance before visiting a doctor’s office or other medical facility.

The Department of Health has a frequently asked questions page viewable here.

Editor/Publisher

Clara Garcia is a native of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. She is the president of the New Mexico Newspaper Association, and is a member of the Pilot Club of Belen.

Staff Writer

Anna Padilla is a native of Los Lunas, and is a graduate of the University of New Mexico. She began her journalism career with the VCNB in May 2019. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, SODA and the town of Peralta.

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