The number of COVID-19 cases confirmed in New Mexico skyrocketed Friday to 191, as officials ordered schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year and said passengers flying into the state must self-isolate for two weeks.

The state Department of Health reported 55 new cases of the novel coronavirus that causes the respiratory infection — a 40 percent increase from the count a day earlier — including 27 in Bernalillo County and seven in Santa Fe County. The Santa Fe area now has 29 confirmed cases. Seventeen of the people who have tested positive in the state have been hospitalized as of Friday, with six of them in critical care or on ventilators. There has been one virus-related death.

The surge was more than double any prior single-day increase — the previous high had been 24 new cases Thursday. The total number of confirmed cases roughly doubled from three days prior.

"Having your numbers double in three days is not the best sign we could see," Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said late Friday on Facebook Live. "But it’s not as high as some of the epicenters where you’re seeing some of those doubling rates every two days.

"It means there’s more social distancing that must be done," she added. 

While the great majority of confirmed cases continue to be travel-related, 20 percent of cases are still under investigation and 15 percent appear to be caused by community spread, the governor said. 

"That’s the number that gives us real pause," Lujan Grisham said, referring to community spread.

The governor urged New Mexicans to strictly follow social distancing measures, noting that a person with the virus who is out in public can infect some 400 people in the span of 30 days. If residents transmit the virus at that rate, it could easily overwhelm health care resources, she said. 

"I want everyone to remember we’re in this fight together," Lujan Grisham said. "Together, we will persevere. We will all be OK."

Experts said the dramatic increase in cases Friday was expected, given New Mexico saw its first instances of the virus later than other states, and those areas have since seen exponential growth. 

"Once you get on this train, it starts to speed up," said Kathryn Hanley, a biology professor at New Mexico State University who specializes in virus evolutionary ecology. "We got on the train much later, so we’re just starting to pick up speed."

The governor issued an executive order Friday that will require passengers flying into the state to self-isolate for 14 days. People who fail to do so will be subject to forced isolation or quarantine by the Health Department.

The order doesn't apply to airline employees and those performing public safety or public health duties, including military personnel, federal employees, national defense contractors, first responders, and employees of shipping and freight companies.

Testing difficulties

The surge in cases Friday came as some New Mexico residents ran into obstacles and conflicting information when trying to get tested for COVID-19, even as they had clear signs of being at risk.

Kevin Zansler, a 29-year-old resident of Santa Fe, said the state Health Department told him Tuesday he could not get tested even though his fever spiked from 99 degrees to 103.2 degrees in a span of several hours and his roommate had just been confirmed positive after a trip to New York.

“They said 'You’re not eligible yet because you don’t also have a cough,' ” Zansler told The New Mexican.

The person Zansler spoke with at the Health Department, who he believed was a nurse, only suggested he take Tylenol to reduce his fever and put alcohol on the soles of his feet so that heat would dissipate.

Feeling he needed to get another opinion, Zansler then called Presbyterian Healthcare Services, where a nurse had the opposite response and wrote an order for him to get tested. He did that Thursday and was waiting for the results.

“My flu test has already come back negative,” he said. “Pretty much everything is pointing to coronavirus.”

The Governor's Office, which is coordinating the response to the pandemic with the Health Department, said staff have been working nonstop to process test results and to relay accurate information to patients and the general public.

"It is an incomprehensible amount of work," said Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor. "It is my view they have risen to the challenge remarkably every day and continue to do so, and we all owe them an enormous debt.”

Zansler said his roommate who tested positive waited 5½ days to get his results back. During that time, Zansler and other friends were left in limbo, unable to know whether they had indeed come into contact with someone with the virus.

Zansler mostly self-isolated over the five days but did go to the grocery store once, saying the lack of results gave a “false sense of security."

“Had we gotten his results sooner, I definitely would not have made a trip to the grocery store,” he said.

Mixed messages

It wasn’t just people trying to get tested who experienced contradictory messages from health officials. People already confirmed to have the virus got them, too.

A 64-year-old Santa Fe woman, whose journey through the testing system was featured in a March 22 story in The New Mexican, was later confirmed positive for COVID-19 after waiting four days for her results.

“We were both so shocked,” she said, referring to herself and her husband. “We couldn’t believe it when the doctor called.”

The woman was still exhibiting symptoms but said she was feeling better, and a state epidemiologist told her she was very likely to recover. Adding to the good news, none of the family members or friends she had recently seen was showing signs of sickness.

Yet the experience could provide a window into a state Health Department that has an inordinate amount of work amid the global health crisis. The woman said the people she spoke with gave unclear advice.

The first two people she talked to — a nurse and a liaison for health care providers — told her to tell everyone she saw before the onset of symptoms that they had to shelter in place for 14 days from the time of contact. That's what she did.

“We let all of our friends know, and it was pretty dire,” the woman said.

Afterward, she said, an epidemiologist at the agency said those precautions weren't necessary because the contact occurred before she became symptomatic.

The Governor's Office said it hadn't heard any reports of people getting inconsistent information from the COVID-19 hotline, but acknowledged it was "possible an individual might have been passed between people with somewhat differing information.”

Stelnicki added the state's guidance has been that individuals who may have had contact with people who test positive "certainly need to stay home and self-isolate.”

The woman received more mixed messages Friday on how long she needed to stay in self-isolation. Some health officials said 14 days while others said she was free to move about sooner, according to the woman.

The woman said the epidemiologist was impressed with how disciplined she and her husband had been while sheltering in place.

Her husband said if they had not been so diligent, the woman easily could have transmitted the virus to others without knowing it.

“There would be a whole other cohort of people who could be exposed,” he said.


Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(34) comments

Frances Robinson

We New Mexicans need to get a grip on reality. If 1 million US Americans die from the virus, that's 1/10 of 1% of the current US population. Miniscule. If 8 million people around the world die from the virus, that's 1/80 of 1% of the world's current population. Miniscule. I AM NOT STUPID -- I do realize that if we're one of the dead, numbers don't matter. But the vast majority of us are alive and we will stay alive, even if we do get sick.

Richard Reinders

If everyone operated like everyone has the virus including themselves the spread would stop, people are still way to casual about this. Paul white said he saw people handling all the mango's to see if they were ripe with out gloves. People should firmly be called down for that not a casual comment and the store notified.

teresa parli

I think there are a couple serious issues not being considered.

One is the 30 % false negative rate of nasal tests and 60% false negative rates for the throat swab. If the state has 13,000 negative tests and 1/3 are actually positive, and folks think they are actually ok, then opportunities for counseling are being missed. The other issue is that a positive influenza doesn't mean a person can't also be coinfected with Covid 19. The public should be made aware and healthcare workers, and government/public health officials should also be transparent about this.

david J.

Marketstreet has early hours, set aside for 60+ years old

John Onstad

Remember folks, a "case" is strictly a positive test. Increase testing = increase "cases".

A vast majority of "cases" develop no symptoms or only minor symptoms.

NM has 2,100,000 population and only 17 have been hospitalized--that's less than one person in 100,000 is seriously ill from the Wuhan virus.

This may get worse but let's not make it worse by distorting the facts. Gov. Lujan wants to test everyone. At $500/test (may be much more), that's a billion bucks.

Alot of people won't be able to pay their rent, so let's figure out how to put people back to work. Lots of bankruptcies, foreclosures ahead if we don't

Diego Mondragon

Why is this nimrod still even traveling to NY??? Why the heck didn't you stay there??!! Ignorant people that just do not listen until they get infected and spread it around.

Salazar David

"This Doctor from Weill Cornell hospital in NYC is so wonderfully smart and helpful. He is clear, thoughtful, and easy to listen to. He is working at the epicenters of it. Please listen to it. It’s so informative and factual."

Nicoletta Munroe

Thank you for this article. It is reported that the Governor used social media to speak about the pandemic. Most informed people have de-activated their Facebook account because of security risks, lawsuits, and racist policy from the company. Facebook has red-lined people of color by limiting advertising demographic. Facebook is not a company that the Governor should affiliate with. In using Facebook, for a government news announcement, we empower a corporate company that considers us to be advertising targets. Government should not be an unwitting shill for Facebook. Read some of the Facebook books, and you will leave them.

teresa parli

Robert Ball

Many states post their positive cases by zip code. Why doesn't NM do the same? It would be great to know of all these cases of Covid-19 if any are near or in my zip code!

Tracy Opdycke

I would like to see them report by transmission type as well - community spread / travel / under investigation - this would make the data much more meaningful

Loyal Customer

If our short sighted Governor was really concerned about public health, she would outlaw the sale of alcohol, cigarettes, and butter. These things kill more Americans than the flu.

Betheny Winkler

Nobody is discussing the flu here, except you.

Way to minimize global disaster.

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David Ford

I am pretty sure that your mythology doesn't have a place here. Especially the christian mythology which sends all people to h*)) who don't believe in their god. I bet if you were born in Iran or Saudi Arabia, you would be preaching from the other side of your alleged godliness. Yeah don't pray, its a waste of time anyway, after all god is busy putting stripes on zebras....

Augustin de la Sierra

The only item I would add to the Governor's Must-Do list is a call for un-infected volunteers to deliver food and prescriptions to quarantined and sick folks.

Seth Halpern

The epidemiologist who allegedly told a test-positive woman that she wasn't contagious until she had symptoms, was incompetent. Studies indicate the virus is *most* contagious *before* actual symptoms appear. In any case, many if not most infected persons will not be symptomatic. Was the good doctor suggesting that nobody who comes in contact with them need self-isolate?

I guess this is why when I needed heart surgery my own doctors warned me not to have it in New Mexico. "St. Victims" indeed.

Ted Nugent

Getting a royal flush in your first hand of poker – 1 in 649,740. Dying from COVID-19 three times unlikely nationwide!...just sayin'.

Gene Hill

So you're saying the odds of dying from COVID is one in 2 million? So you're saying that only 150 people in the country will die? There were 372 deaths YESTERDAY ALONE and the rate is growing exponentially as we were always warned by the credible authorities. Believe me, this is no time for frivolous and totally misleading comments.

HRH Prince Michael Jauregui

Thank-you Mr. Hill. Apparently, another "Government" employee - Misinformation is their job.

David Ford

Thanks Gene. Amazing how contagious ignorance and misinformation is among the naysayers. All they have to do is look at actual statistics instead of listening to Dr. Trump (you know the guy whose uncle was an Electrical Engineer)...geeeeeez

Ted Nugent

You are right. Twice, not three times. Gene, all yo do is spread fear in the public. People are already unemployed & scared . . . and all you do is present more doom and gloom. Go back to your bomb shelter.

Khal Spencer

Hats off to the governor and our health workers. No one can say for certain how this will play out and she is right in telling us all to err on the side of abundant caution.

Mike Johnson

I don't know Khal, this sounds like the Guv was slow off the market here, and these stories of conflicting info from her health department (run by a lawyer, not a scientist or health professional), sounds pretty bad: "Once you get on this train, it starts to speed up," said Kathryn Hanley, a biology professor at New Mexico State University who specializes in virus evolutionary ecology. "We got on the train much later, so we’re just starting to pick up speed."

Pawel Fludzinski

Apologies for the redundant posts - when the first one didn't post "quickly", I assume I had done something wrong and rewrote the post..... now I know there is a delay. Stay healthy everyone. Stay sane.

Pawel Fludzinski

Unfortunately, we do not have perfect information in real time - especially given the shortage of testing capacity and the dormancy period of the virus. With # cases far exceeding testing capacity (witness all the difficulty in getting tested), it is NO surprise as testing capacity increases, the # or reported cases will increase commensurately. As long as the testing capacity is insufficient to test all of the suspected cases, we cannot conclude that "the # of cases is skyrocketed" - we can conclude nothing about the increase in # of unidentified cases - it may be skyrocketing, but it may also be increasing at a far more modest rate. The only thing we can conclude is that the number of REPORTED cases is skyrocketing - no surprise, since there is a surge in testing capacity.

Pawel Fludzinski

We not have perfect, transparent information. Testing has lagged behind the # of cases for some time - witness all the difficulty in getting tests. The number of reported cases has "skyrocketed"; we do not know if there is a corresponding increase in actual cases. We do not know at what rate the number of unidentified patients are growing (it may or may not be skyrocketing); only the number of reported cases as testing increases. A more responsible headline would've been "New Mexico Sees Number of Reported Cases Skyrocket as Testing Capacity Increases".

Eslee Kessler

Since we really don’t know about non-symptomatic carriers, what can be done about the grocery stores? We are facing a food distribution problem that needs a coordinated resolution to crowded and chaotic shopping here. Could there be hours for shoppers alphabetized by last name? Could the Mayor get on this problem and meet with local store managers in Santa Fe’s larger venues? I am afraid to go to the Market place or to Sprouts because of my age and I’m in the higher risk category ..

Khal Spencer

At least some food outlets (Trader Joes comes to mind) are expediting entry for senior citizens only. Call around or check the web.

Ted Nugent

"I am afraid to go to the Market place or to Sprouts because of my age and I’m in the higher risk category ." Stay home then. Problem solved.

David Ford

hey Constance I thought the odds were in your favor! This is what I am talking about. Whiners whining at every single turn regardless of the issue - contrarians serving absolutely no purpose.

Chris Mechels

I am also high risk, over 80 with COPD. The grocery stores are an obvious place where the virus is passed around, and its chaos. No mask, no distancing, no gloves or masks at checkout. A nightmare. The obvious solution is to close the doors and deliver the food, and this COULD be done. But the Governor isn't open to input, just sitting in her office with Tripp doing PR. Isn't it lovely to have Tripp giving us advice??? A total airhead, knowing only PR.

Unless the Governor actually leaves her office and meets REALITY, at the grocers and other stores, this Lock Down is a joke, and she and Tripp are killing us with their incompetence.

Bill Roth

Chris: Instacart delivery. Your rant has already been dealt with thru private enterprise. Please do your homework before you got disparaging our governor. Sprouts delivers thru them along with other grocery stores and big box stores. Go to sprouts website and look for delivery service. It costs all of 10$ a month for unlimited deliveries with a value over 35$. take a look and then maybe apologize for another of your misguided rants?

Lisa Smith

You have to forgive Chris. He’s out of his element commenting on anything other than anti-nuclear.

Betheny Winkler

Sprouts delivery, "Powered by Instacart". I need a Plan B!

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