State epidemiologist departs as New Mexico reopens economy


New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham removes her face mask at the start of an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in New Mexico and the State’s effort to limit the impact of the disease on residents, during a news conference at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday May 27, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico’s lead specialist for tracking and combating infectious disease is leaving the state Health Department amid the coronavirus pandemic to take a job with the Virginia Department of Health.

Michael Landen retired as state epidemiologist to pursue work closer to relatives in Virginia, where his parents live, said Health Department spokesman David Morgan.

Landen was appointed in 2012 under Republican Gov. Susana Martinez and was a leading figure in the state’s response to the opioid epidemic before COVID-19 arrived in March.

Deputy Epidemiologist Chad Smelser will lead the epidemiology and response division, while a nationwide search takes place for successor to Landen, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced Tuesday. Smelser accompanied Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at news conferences in the early stages of the pandemic.

New Mexico aggressively pursued public health restrictions at the outset of the epidemic and this month allowed dine-in restaurants, shopping malls, gyms and hair salons to reopen at limited capacity.

A spike in statewide infections over the past week tied to an outbreak at prison facilities in Otero County has changed the outlook for New Mexico and efforts to safely reopen the economy.

In other New Mexico coronavirus developments:

  • New Mexico received an overall “trending poorly” grade Monday on a website frequently cited by state health officials that tracks progress on infection rates, capacity for testing, available hospital capacity and more against White House criteria.
  • The Las Cruces City Council on Monday unanimously approved a resolution encouraging but not requiring that people wear face coverings inside commercial and retail businesses to mitigate coronavirus spread, the Las Cruces Sun-News reported. A measure shelved Friday by the council would have imposed a requirement to wear face coverings. Violators could have faced misdemeanor charges punishable by jail time and fines.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

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