Employees of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission received the terrifying news in an email the morning of March 23.
One of their co-workers, who had last been in the office at the PERA Building downtown 12 days before, had tested positive for COVID-19.
More disconcerting news came four days later.
Another PRC employee who had been in contact with the first worker also had contracted the potentially lethal disease, setting off a chain of events that other public and private employers across the nation have tried to avoid as concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus at workplaces continued to grow.
Internal emails obtained by The New Mexican paint a picture of an urgent effort within the state regulatory body to establish timelines to determine who had been in proximity to the two infected employees. At the same time, officials rushed to evacuate and then decontaminate the five-story public building near the Capitol where other essential employees from a couple of state agencies were still reporting to work.
PRC Chief of Staff Jason Montoya said the agency followed proper protocols from start to finish.
“I just think that the timeline doesn’t suggest that the PRC was irresponsible,” Montoya said in a telephone interview.
“I want to make that very clear,” he said. “If anything, we’ve been overestimating the potential contamination of a building or [potential exposure of] our staff. Our highest priority is our employees’ safety and health.”
Montoya said the two infected employees, a man and a woman, are slowly recovering. The female employee, who was the second PRC worker to contract the disease, “has a family at home and now has to care for them and quarantine as well,” he said.
“Based on the timeline and working with the Department of Health investigators, it is suspected that the second person may have contracted it from the first person because they do work in the same division in the same area within the same building,” Montoya said.
‘We literally sent him home’
According to emails and interviews, the male employee had been in Denver the weekend of March 7, though it’s unknown where or how he contracted the disease.
The employee became aware no later than early March 13, a Friday, “that he had to self-quarantine in light of his prior weekend in Denver,” according to emails. The last time he had been in the office was March 11, the email states.
But Montoya said the employee knew he had to self-quarantine earlier than the email indicates. After the Governor’s Office issued self-isolation recommendations March 11 for state employees who had traveled out of state, Montoya said, the PRC asked the male employee to self-quarantine “even though we’re not part of the executive branch” of state government.
“We literally sent him home on March 11,” Montoya said. “But it’s my understanding he didn’t start developing any symptoms until like three or four days thereafter, so the exposure of maybe spreading the COVID-19 [to his female co-worker] was on March 10 and/or March 11.”
Montoya said the PRC learned the following week that the male employee had developed symptoms of the coronavirus.
“We knew they were admitted to the hospital, diagnosed with something similar but never got the positive test results until the 23rd,” he said. “That’s my biggest fear right now for the entire nation — the length of time it’s taking to get your test results.”
Montoya said the female employee “was sent home to telework on March 13” and “only came back to the building once, which was on March 17 to get her computer worked on,” as well as to attend a conference call about a rate case.
The female employee tested positive for COVID-19 the morning of March 27, according to emails. She recalled talking to or interacting with four other PRC workers before she showed symptoms, the emails state.
“I am sure she would enjoy hearing from people,” her boss wrote in a March 27 email to her co-workers. “She is checking emails, texts, taking calls, etc. Just knowing the rest of us do not have symptoms would be a relief to her.”
Montoya said he doesn’t know of any other PRC employees who have gotten sick with the virus.
“Frequently, I’m sending emails to my employees, just informing them that they do have some due diligence to immediately report it to their supervisor and obviously sharing the hotline numbers and everything from” the New Mexico Department of Health, he said.
General Services Department Secretary Ken Ortiz said his Facilities Management Division did a “complete cleaning and de-sanitization” of the PERA Building on Paseo de Peralta immediately after the PRC reported the first positive case of COVID-19.
“When the second one came in, the PRC requested more of a decontamination effort because they now had two cases, and they were concerned that possibly there could be additional” employees who had contracted the disease but weren’t showing symptoms, he said.
After consulting with officials from the Office of Superintendent of Insurance and the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, which also occupy portions of the PERA building, “the decision was made to do a full-scale decontamination effort,” Ortiz said.
The floor-to-floor cleaning by an outside contractor started March 29 and ended March 31, he said. The building was cleared for occupancy Wednesday, he said.
“All the floors and walls were sprayed with disinfectant solution,” Ortiz said. “Our contractor then wiped down and disinfected all surfaces to include, but not limited to, computers, monitors, keyboards, light switches, desks, chairs, doors and door handles.”
All the materials used in the cleanup were disposed of in a 55-gallon drum that has been sealed and remains on-site until the Environmental Protection Agency approves paperwork for its disposal, he said.
“My thought is we went above and beyond what [the Department of Health] and [the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] is calling for and went for a full decontamination,” Ortiz said.
Superintendent of Insurance Russell Toal said the evacuation and decontamination had little impact on his operations since a large majority of his 90 employees were already working from home.
“We had prepped everything the week before … to get everybody ready for teleworking,” he said. “There were only about seven of us who were in the office.”
Toal said he wasn’t concerned about going back into the building, noting “It’s probably the safest building in town right now, given what they just went through.”
A spokesman for the state Children, Youth and Families Department did not return a message seeking comment.
Montoya said the PRC also had a skeleton crew in the building when news of the positive cases of COVID-19 surfaced. He said the agency has been following the governor’s recommendation and executive order to telework.
“We immediately implemented a temporary teleworking plan on March 13 and basically sent everybody home with the ability to telework, including laptop computer, desktop if needed, network access to our servers remotely,” he said.
But a small number of employees “needed to get access to the building” after the governor issued her executive order, he said.
“IT, for example, they have to go in to perform operation and maintenance on our servers,” he said, referring to the PRC’s information technology office. “Some people probably have felt like they’ve needed to get in that building to water their plants, you know, for five, 10 minutes and whatnot.”