New Mexico quietly closes its COVID isolation shelters

The last known COVID isolation shelter in NM has no public address or phone number

By: - September 16, 2022 5:00 am

The Buffalo Thunder Isolation & Quarantine Shelter, apparently the last such shelter in New Mexico, closed on Aug. 31. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

POJOAQUE PUEBLO — Since April 2020, the Buffalo Thunder Isolation & Quarantine Shelter housed 1,646 Native Americans and non-Native people from 44 different tribes and three different countries, including people from two First Nations in Canada and a woman from Puerto Rico who caught COVID-19 while she was visiting her daughter in nearby Santa Fe.

The shelter, operated by tribal, state and federal health and emergency officials on Pueblo land, opened with the sole purpose of isolating Native people in New Mexico who tested positive for the deadly viral disease.

But it soon expanded to include anyone considered high-risk of dying or developing severe illness from catching coronavirus, said Shane Roberts, a New Mexico Medical Reserve Corps worker and registered nurse who ran the shelter since July 2020.

During that time it was “a central location for sheltering Native Americans,” New Mexico Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase told reporters Thursday.

For nearly the last two years, Roberts said, the shelter at Buffalo Thunder “was the busiest testing facility outside of Albuquerque.”

At the height of the state’s response to the pandemic, the Buffalo Thunder shelter was one of 27 such shelters run by New Mexico, according to Marina Piña, spokesperson for the Health and Human Services Department.

Their purpose was to provide people who tested positive for COVID-19 but do not have the resources to self-isolate a safe place to do so, Piña said, including first responders, people living in multi-generational housing, unhoused people, and “various one-off cases where an individual could not safely self-isolate,” Piña said.

There have been many, many cycles of openings and closings since the beginning of the pandemic, Scrase said.

However, during all those cycles, the shelter at Buffalo Thunder stayed open—until now.

After 878 straight days in operation, the shelter in Pojoaque closed on Aug. 31.

“There’s a reason that we’re the last shelter standing,” Roberts said in an interview the day before closing, “because we’re very good at what we do.”

Why are they closing?

Shelters like the one in Pojoaque are closing because “the use for them dropped off precipitously and the need for isolation shelters in the community has decreased,” Piña said.

“As vaccination rates have improved, and as the people of New Mexico followed the COVID-19 mitigation strategies outlined in the governor’s public health orders, utilization dropped to zero for weeks at many of our sites, which led to assessing the need for closures,” Piña said.

The shelters in Albuquerque, Farmington, Gallup and Las Cruces “experienced days or weeks with zero” people needing the services over the last four months, Piña said. She did not answer a follow-up question about when those shelters closed.

But a lack of use was not the case with the shelter in Pojoaque. Even though the shelters around the state are closing, there is still a need for them that will now go unmet, Roberts said.

“We’re still getting calls now, ‘Hey, can you take ‘em?’” Roberts said in an interview on Aug. 30. “No, we can’t, because nobody’s gonna be here tomorrow, to make sure they’re safe.”

Just two days before the shelter closed, some of the local tribes were trying to send people to isolate, Roberts said.

“We had to refuse it, because there’s no one going to be here to deliver the care to them,” Roberts said. He does not know where those people could go.

Shane Roberts ran the the Buffalo Thunder Isolation & Quarantine Shelter out of a makeshift office from July 2020 until it closed on Aug. 31, 2022. (Photo by Austin Fisher / Source NM)

The federal government was paying for 100% of the cost to run the shelter, Roberts said, but that ended on June 30, when the shelter was originally scheduled to close. The money came from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“It comes down to money,” Roberts said. “It costs a lot of money to operate this shelter.”

One week before the shelter was scheduled to close on June 30, Roberts said, staff was able to get an extension by showing there is still a need for the shelter to keep running and they could cover the funding gap.

Between then and the actual closure, the shelter housed 100 COVID-positive people, he said.

Will the shelters ever come back?

In the final days, Roberts and the others were preparing the final certificates for the last group of guests and breaking down all their equipment to store at the Pojoaque Pueblo government emergency operations center.

“Let’s say we have a bigger COVID outbreaks in six months: Everything is there for them,” Roberts said. “They just have to pull it out of storage and rebuild everything just the way it is.”

The U.S. overall could see 100 million coronavirus infections and a potentially significant wave of deaths this fall and winter, the Washington Post reported.

“We have been flexible with the opening and closing of these shelters and should the need arise, we will determine if re-opening of shelters is necessary,” Piña said.

There is no hard metric that HHS and DOH officials will use to make that determination, Scrase said, but “generally, as soon as we are encountering one or more people who need sheltering,” they will pay for people to stay in a hotel until positive case counts go back down.

Is there still a shelter in Las Cruces?

There is one COVID-19 isolation shelter still running in Las Cruces, Piña said. However, there is no contact information or even an address anywhere to be found on the HHS or DOH websites.

When reached by phone on Sept. 6, no one at the Las Cruces Public Health Office, nor the non-emergency DOH information hotline knew about the shelter. Someone at the Las Cruces Triage Center knew about it but had not heard from anyone there for weeks.

Piña did not answer follow-up questions asking for any information about the shelter that might help members of the public know about how to use it if they need to isolate, or even the current number of people staying there.

Piña said a contractor for the Medical Reserve Corps has managed the shelter for the last five months but did not answer a follow-up question about who runs the site.

Roberts said the attitude in the public and the media largely is “Oh yeah, COVID is over,” which frustrates him and other health care workers like him who have been dealing with the pandemic every day since the beginning.

“It’s not over,” Roberts said. “It’s five times worse than it’s ever been. We have five times the death that we had a year ago, five times the infection rate. But that’s not what we’re hearing about.”

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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.