N.M. gets $77M for testing, tracing

New Mexico will receive $77.3 million in federal government funding for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing efforts, the state's five congressional representatives announced Thursday.

New Mexico will receive $77.3 million in federal government funding for COVID-19 testing and contact-tracing efforts, the state's five congressional representatives announced Thursday.

The money, which will come from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is part of $25 billion in funding passed by Congress last month for testing, health care providers and small businesses.

"We cannot rebuild our economy or return to normal life safely without drastically expanded testing and contact tracing across the country," Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said in a statement.

The announcement came after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday (May 13) that the state has a significant shortage of professionals to carry out contact tracing. New Mexico needs a minimum of 670 people but currently only has just over 100, she said.

"It's not enough," Lujan Grisham said.

Contact tracing is a disease-control strategy used to track people who have been in close contact with carriers of the novel coronavirus so that they can be isolated and officials can limit the spread of the virus. The efforts typically include in-depth interviews with people who have tested positive and others with whom they have come in contact.

The efforts have become particularly important as states begin to relax social distancing measures and reopen economies. New Mexico took its biggest step toward returning to some semblance of normal this week when Lujan Grisham announced most retailers would be able to reopen at 25 percent capacity Saturday (May 16).

Although the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls contact tracing "a key strategy for preventing further spread of COVID-19," New Mexico is one of many states that hasn't had enough resources to effectively carry out the effort.

"It is incredibly time-intensive," Lujan Grisham said, noting contract-tracing efforts are challenging within the state's Native American communities.

Concerns about protecting personal data and health information have been raised in relation to contact-tracing efforts across the country. The governor said the state is watching what other states are doing in terms of privacy protections.

To beef up the contact-tracing staff, New Mexico is retraining state employees as well as bringing in new people, the governor said. The state also contracted the company Accenture to manage the effort, carry out quality controls and ensure privacy protections.

As part of the federal funding for testing, the government requires New Mexico and other states to tell Health and Human Services what its specific goals are for using the $77 million and how the money will help the state reopen its economy, according to Udall's office.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday (May 14) about how the federal funds will be used and whether the money will allow the state to hire the necessary number of people for tracing.

"We expect this money to bolster the state's effort to ramp up testing and contact tracing, and we will keep in close touch with the governor's office on what needs still exist that the federal government can fill," Udall spokesman Annie Orloff said.

Since the start of the outbreak, New Mexico has consistently had one of the highest per-capita testing rates in the nation. As of Tuesday afternoon (May 19), the state had carried out 142,246 tests, with 6,192 of them positive, according to the Department of Health. There have been 276 deaths.

"New Mexico has been a national leader on expanding testing availability - free of charge - as a critical component of responding to this crisis," said Rep. Ben Ray Luján, D-N.M. "Comprehensive and widespread COVID-19 testing and contact tracing [are] critical to combating the virus."

This story first published in the Santa Fe New Mexican, a sibling publication of the Taos News.

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