By Kevin Wilson

Officials discuss COVID-19 issues


Last updated 11/17/2020 at 4:02pm

CLOVIS — Much of a two-hour Curry County Commission meeting Tuesday morning dealt with local effects of COVID-19 infection spikes, with commissioners briefly going back and forth about their roles as leaders during the pandemic.

The virtual meeting began with a pair of presentations from Plains Regional Medical Center Interim Administrator Jorge Cruz and Cannon Air Force Base Commander Col. Robert Masaitis.

As of Tuesday morning, Cruz said, the hospital had 26 COVID-19 patients, with six in intensive care and three on ventilators. That put the hospital at 66% capacity. Cruz reported the hospital recently had 34 COVID-19 patients with 10 in ICU.

The hospital, Cruz said, is licensed for seven ICU beds but has contingency plans to expand to 12 and 19.

“You have to think about the workforce and staffing available,” Cruz said, noting the hospital has been short up to 30 staffers at some points. “We have adequate staffing at this time, but every day has been a challenge.”

Moves taken by the hospital have included cutting elective surgeries in half to free up staff for ICU duties and hiring 13-week contract labor. Also, Cruz said, Tucumcari partner Trigg Memorial Hospital can take 10 non-COVID patients if needed.

Capacity of nearby hospitals is sporadic because they have similar COVID-19 issues, Cruz said, and four recent patient transfers all went to Albuquerque and Tucumcari.

“We may have to keep patients here we historically would transfer,” Cruz said, “but we have an amazing staff. I would trust my most prized possession with them.”

Masaitis, largely echoing a letter he sent to the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce, updated commissioners on difficulties in keeping the base’s mission going.

The base, like the community, has seen a jump in virus cases.

“They’re concerning but we know we’re generally of the age and health demographic where all of our people will recover,” Masaitis said. “The issue that is impacting us is every time we have a positive case, we have to do contact tracing. Many times, those are in some of our mission critical capabilities.”

The base is keeping services to retirees available, because Masaitis said they haven’t shown to cause issues. Pharmacy hours may be reduced, and the commissary may have fewer items because it saw the same panic buying as off-base grocery stores did.

“There’s no magic barrier at the gate that keeps coronavirus out. Our people are your people,” Masaitis said, echoing his letter. “As goes Curry County, so goes Cannon Air Force Base. The thing you can do to support the base is ensure the health of the community, and the way you can do that is implement the COVID-safe practices.”

During individual commission reports, Commissioner Chet Spear got out in front of what he anticipated would be Commissioner Bobby Sandoval’s pleas to wear masks and socially distance.

“I’d like to jump on Bobby’s bandwagon,” Spear said. “We’re getting really serious about this COVID. As much as most of us disagree with the policies and programs our governor has (put) on us … I would encourage all of us to practice the safe practices they’ve asked us to do, the social distancing and gatherings.

“Not gathering at Thanksgiving, It’s like not having gifts at Christmas. It’s not right, but she’s imposed that. So use caution, use common sense.”

Sandoval, who has consistently made such requests to the community, asked citizens to research the benefits of mask wearing from multiple sources, check the funeral home websites to see COVID-19’s effects and realize neighboring facilities have sent up tents for treatment.

“This is the first time I’ve heard anybody but myself bring this up to the commission,” said Sandoval, who said the commission doesn’t lead. “Today we talk the talk. It’s time we start walking the walk.”

Commissioner Seth Martin, who has consistently opposed mask wearing, shared a quote from Benjamin Franklin that those who give up liberty for security deserve neither. Sandoval advised Martin give that statement to families of COVID-19 victims and, “let’s see how well they accept it.”

County Manager Lance Pyle said the detention center has acquired 640 rapid response tests, which can be used for systematic testing but not for jail protocols including testing everybody who is booked. Pyle added the alternate testing site at Clovis Community College ended Monday, and that the county has seen a total of 2,358 positive cases and 15 deaths.

In other business at the Tuesday meeting:

• Commissioners approved a $30,000 expense to hire Colorado attorney Peter Nichols to facilitate a town hall and create a land trust board to assist with the Readiness and Environmental Protection Initiative at Cannon Air Force Base.

The REPI program could provide the area with money to incentivize farmers to retire irrigation farming and protect the municipal water supply.

Commission Chairman Ben McDaniel was concerned about a scenario where there would just be a town hall meeting and nothing else to show for it. Martin said he supports the REPI program, but was concerned the county could be cast aside and watch the Eastern New Mexico Water Utility Authority take full control of the effort.

• Commissioners were introduced to new Countyline Fire Department Chief Mike Novak. The new department is being set up in south Curry County near the Southwest Cheese plant, and Novak said a land donation near Curry Road 6 is in the works.

The department has about 15 active members, and Novak has a goal to go online Dec. 1 but figures Jan. 1 is more realistic. The department doesn’t have a dispatch frequency yet, but Novak said, “if something big were to break out, we could get the truck and respond to it.”

• The commission voted 5-0 for a resolution opposing the elimination of qualified immunity for law enforcement as recommended by the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission.

County Attorney Steve Doerr said “the biggest concern the county has is the unknown” on litigation and feared changes could make insurance prohibitively expensive.

• The commission canceled its Dec. 1 meeting, and will meet again 9 a.m. Dec. 15.


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