SANTA FE – New Mexico’s Health Secretary Kathyleen Kunkel on Friday announced her intention to retire once the current wave of coronavirus infections subsides.
Kunkel, 69, an attorney and former pediatric social worker, cited the physical and mental demands of her work at the forefront on the state’s efforts to contain the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who once led the Department of Health, announced a nationwide search for a successor.
Lujan Grisham imposed aggressive public health directives at the outset of the pandemic that included business closings, stay-at-home restrictions and school closures. Stubbornly high infection rates have gripped the northwest part of the state and large portions of the Navajo Nation that extends into Arizona and Utah.
The Health Department is in the middle of hiring at least 200 specialists to identify outbreaks and trace exposure at it shifts toward a rapid-response model for limiting spread.
As rates of infections increased in recent days, Lujan Grisham announced more aggressive enforcement measures to ensure masks are worn in public and that visitors and out-of-state travelers abide by orders to self-quarantine for 14 days.
Current restrictions on mass gatherings have been extended through mid-July. The state used its cellphone emergency alert system on Friday to warn of high infection risks and the need for masks.
Kunkel was appointed in January 2019. The state also is recruiting a new state epidemiologist after the recent departure of Michael Landen.
Statewide deaths from the coronavirus surpassed 500 this week.
In other virus-related developments:
A southeastern New Mexico county is going ahead with plans to hold the county fair’s junior livestock show and sale in August amid concerns about COVID-19.The Hobbs News-Sun reports the Lea County commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to send a letter to Lujan Grisham asking her to amend her public order so the annual junior livestock show could take place.
Commissioners say the event can be done while following the state’s safety restrictions and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The county has canceled its annual fair and rodeo.
On Friday, health officials reported an additional 257 COVID-19 cases, bringing the statewide total of confirmed infections to 12,776. The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.