SANTA FE — New Mexico’s governor announced Thursday that K-12 schools will close for three weeks in an effort to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus.
Public health officials also banned mass gatherings that involve 100 or more people in spaces such as stadiums or auditoriums as a way to limit the spread of the virus.
The moves came as the state confirmed a sixth positive test for coronavirus for a woman in her 50s from Santa Fe County who recently traveled to Italy, where more than 800 deaths have been linked to COVID-19.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news release that the extended closure will begin at the end of the school day Friday. Many public school districts had shorter spring breaks scheduled next week.
“New Mexico is not going to wait as long as some other states to make the hard decisions about this pandemic,” the governor said in one announcement Thursday. On Wednesday, she declared a public health emergency to help secure emergency provisions and personnel and to enforce health directives.
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said the extended schools closure is designed to guard against the spread of COVID-19 within communities. Five of the six infections in New Mexico have a confirmed travel link, and a possible travel component is under investigation of a woman in her 40s from Bernalillo County who also tested positive Thursday.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The order against gatherings came from Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel and provides exemptions for people at airports, mass transit sites, shopping malls, homeless shelters, courthouses, health care facilities, places of worship, weddings and funerals.
Positive tests for the virus include a couple in their 60s in Socorro County who recently returned from Egypt and two women who recently traveled to New York.
Albuquerque Academy, a private high school, already closed Thursday after someone associated with the school came into contact with an infected person.
State health officials are emphasizing concern for the elderly who are considered the most vulnerable to effects of the virus, distributing signs at nursing homes that discourage most visits.
At a nursing home and rehabilitation center in Santa Fe, banker Floyd Morelos was turned away at the entrance from an attempt to visit his 85-year-old mother who suffers from dementia and can’t answer the phone on her own.
“It’s a good thing. I’m glad that there are restrictions,” he said. “I was wondering when they were going to do this because I could see it coming.”
A couple of colleges planned to extend spring break while others considered options for expanding the use of online courses.
New Mexico has opened a medical hotline to help people assess symptoms and seek care with precautions against new transmission. Nonessential state workers have been instructed to work from home if possible.
State health officials say the local capacity to test for coronavirus infections has tripled to about 7,400, as nonprofit TriCore Reference Laboratories announced Thursday it had begun processing diagnostic tests of respiratory specimens for COVID-19.
Statistics on statewide hospital bed capacity to treat severely sickened patients were unavailable Thursday from the Department of Health.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said at a news conference Wednesday that one major hospital could convert outpatient treatment rooms to hospitalize 200 patients if necessary. He estimates that about 10% of infected patients are expected to require hospitalization, with a smaller anticipated demand for ventilator breathing machines.
On Thursday evening, the Gathering of Nations announced the cancellation this year of what organizers bill as North America’s largest powwow that typically draws thousands of indigenous people together from around the globe.