COVID spreading in NM disaster centers

Staff and evacuees don’t wear masks in Glorieta and Las Vegas shelters, which also lack consistent filtration and ventilation

By: - May 23, 2022 5:00 am

An air filtration unit in the medical area at the Las Vegas disaster recovery center in Las Vegas. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

As coronavirus cases surge in New Mexico, people fleeing the biggest wildfire in the state’s history have been staying at disaster recovery centers. Few wear masks, and efforts to ventilate and filtrate the indoor air are spotty, leaving evacuees more prone to catch the virus — and breathe in dangerous particles from the smoke.

Some people at the shelter in Las Vegas, N.M., have other respiratory needs, too, said Lakeisha Goode with the Red Cross. That’s why they keep the doors and windows of the repurposed middle school shut, she said. They’re attempting to stop wildfire smoke from seeping in. 

As of Monday, May 23, at 7 a.m.

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire had grown to over 310,000 acres.

It was 40% contained.

That leaves evacuees without fresh air and puts them at higher risk of catching coronavirus. Some Red Cross workers have already caught the virus there, Goode said. When that happens, they are sent to a COVID shelter that the Red Cross is operating in Albuquerque, she said.

“Right now, COVID is so bad, people have been getting sick, yes,” Goode said. “But we’re trying to stop the spread. It’s hard, because you see a lot of people out here not wearing masks.”

The Red Cross is only one agency trying to help people at the shelters. Volunteers, staff from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and state workers hold down different parts of the disaster response operations.

None of the volunteers in the distribution area of the Las Vegas shelter were wearing masks on Friday, even though N95 masks were given to both staff and evacuees, said Travis Martinez, the spokesperson for the state’s Emergency Operations Center.

None of the FEMA workers, flown in from other states, were wearing masks at either the Glorieta or Las Vegas shelter. FEMA referred all questions to Martinez.

Universal masking reduces the amount of the virus in the air and decreases spread of the illness

Randy Sanches, a volunteer with the New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps, and another member of the medical team, weren’t wearing a mask in the medical area, though he did wear one later. (Sanches is also a major in the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office and a candidate for sheriff this year.)

Operations Manager Janna Lopez said aid workers “have announced constantly” about mask-wearing and hand-washing. She wasn’t wearing a mask on Friday, either.

The evacuee quarters are private, but Lopez said there are ceiling-mounted air filtration systems there — though they could not be observed first-hand.

Despite the hazards, the Las Vegas disaster recovery center could see an influx of evacuees in the coming days. The Glorieta shelter is set to close within the next week. And the Red Cross has already moved its shelter from Glorieta to Las Vegas. 

Red Cross workers do wear masks. They have to, Goode said.

“COVID’s not over. Everybody needs to wear their mask, everybody needs to sanitize. We do that here,” Goode said. “But if the community is not helping us, what can we do?”

New Mexico health officials doubled down in late March on their position that the state will not return to universal masking, and instead will rely on vaccines and treatments to respond to the pandemic.

“We got put at risk coming here, and we didn’t know,” Goode said. Fellow Red Cross workers feel the same way, she said. They have been giving out masks and tests to anyone who wants them, she said.

Limited filtration, no ventilation

Only some rooms at the Las Vegas center have portable air filtration systems, and not all of them are working properly.

Red Cross and FEMA officials work out of repurposed classrooms helping evacuees apply for assistance. The doors to the classrooms were open, but none of the windows on the building were open.

Donated shoes laid out for evacuees at the Las Vegas disaster recovery center on Friday. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

“You know what? I didn’t notice that there wasn’t any ventilation in there — that’s why I couldn’t hardly breathe,” she said.

In another part of the middle school, state officials and volunteers run a distribution center where people can eat or pick up pet supplies. Behind the distribution area is the place where evacuees can stay and sleep.

Doors were kept open at the assistance application area but not at the distribution or sleeping areas. None of the windows were open.

The medical area has two mobile air filtration units with HEPA filters. The units circulate air and run it through a filtration system. They use them because COVID is airborne, Sanches said, and that there’s a lower risk of getting infected if an indoor space is well-ventilated.

But Sanches had placed a basketball and a hat on top of the air outlet cover of one of the units that sits behind his desk. The product’s user manual specifically states, “Do not obstruct air intake or clean air outlet.”

The other one wasn’t working because it needed a new filter, Sanches said.

Reading the room

Carbon dioxide monitors are relatively cheap these days, and they’re an easy way to tell how well an area is ventilated.

There did not appear to be CO2 monitors at either the Glorieta or the Las Vegas center. Martinez has not yet responded to a question about that.

According to a handheld CO2 monitor we brought into the Glorieta shelter Friday afternoon, levels peaked at 885 parts per million. That’s within the healthy range, but heading toward the upper limit. Unhealthy levels begin at 1,000 parts per million.

Inside the Las Vegas shelter a little later that day, CO2 levels peaked at 700 parts per million.

The distribution area also had two filtration systems, one on each side of the room. Lopez said the school district installed the portable filtration systems and the ceiling-mounted ones.

Sanches could not say why the filtration systems aren’t installed throughout the disaster recovery center, he said.

The situation is hectic because the fires are ongoing, people are still being evacuated, Goode said, and the Red Cross is still looking for some of those people who need help but have not come to a disaster recovery center.

Aside from portable units, there is no HVAC system capable of using a MERV-13 filter to pull coronavirus or wildfire smoke particles out of the air at the Las Vegas center, Martinez said.

“There’s nothing like that there,” he said.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the state, even the schools, they don’t have the upgraded systems,” Martinez said. State officials have not done any systematic review to determine if schools are actually taking steps to ventilate and filter indoor air.

Department of Health spokesperson Jodi McGinnis Porter has not yet responded to a question about what efforts DOH is taking to educate the public and emergency management officials on the importance of air filtration as a means of protecting the health and safety of evacuees during the wildfires.

McGinnis Porter said state officials are not managing any of the shelters’ daily operations and emphasized that they are “collaborating with numerous public and private partners.” Each organization is separate and has its own policies and procedures, she said.

The state gave N95 masks to organizations for evacuees, McGinnis Porter said, along with COVID-19 test kits.

“DOH on-site medical staff are able to isolate and transport positive patients as needed,” she said. “DOH has provided shelters with direction to ensure masking guidelines are followed in congregate shelters to continue safe practices.”

State medical staff wear KN-95 masks under the current public health order, McGinnis Porter said, and DOH encourages use of face coverings, testing, hand hygiene, social distancing and vaccination among other staff and guests to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19.

The invisible wave

What steps state officials and community organizations are taking to slow the spread of coronavirus as they respond to the 2022 wildfire season is important because cases are surging throughout most of New Mexico and the United States.

Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of catching COVID-19, studies show. Researchers found that even short-term exposure to particles from wildfire smoke increased COVID-19 cases and deaths during the 2020 wildfire season in Oregon, California and Washington.

As of Sunday, nearly all New Mexico residents were living in areas with high levels of community spread of coronavirus, according to the CDC. 

The Department of Health has not held a news conference about the pandemic for over two months.

While the surge of U.S. cases today is not as high as the omicron wave, it has already exceeded the first two waves, according to epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina.

“If we compare U.S. states to 195 countries, 18 of them would currently be among places with the highest new cases per capita in the world,” Jetelina wrote on May 16. “Case accelerations are not regional, but occurring across the country.”

Plus, official statistics of cases are likely a significant undercount, experts say. As of Friday, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that only about 13% of cases are being detected.

Sanches said his medical team has been “diligently testing” at the Las Vegas disaster recovery center. Both shelters perform rapid antigen tests on evacuees every three days, Martinez said.

Inside Old Memorial Middle School in Las Vegas, N.M., a disaster recovery center for evacuees. (Photo by Bright Quashie for Source NM)

The Red Cross does its own testing of its workers at the Las Vegas disaster recovery center, Goode said. That’s how they found positive cases among their staff and sent those people to quarantine in Albuquerque, she said.

If a Red Cross worker is showing symptoms of COVID, that person has to be tested every three to five days, Goode said.

As of Sunday evening, Martinez had not yet provided a complete count of positive cases among evacuees so far at the Glorieta and Las Vegas shelters.

This is the first story in a series on disaster recovery centers and coronavirus. Find the next article on our homepage tomorrow.

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Austin Fisher
Austin Fisher

Austin Fisher is a journalist based in Santa Fe. He has worked for newspapers in New Mexico and his home state of Kansas, including the Topeka Capital-Journal, the Garden City Telegram, the Rio Grande SUN and the Santa Fe Reporter. Since starting a full-time career in reporting in 2015, he’s aimed to use journalism to lift up voices that typically go unheard in public debates around economic inequality, policing and environmental racism.