COVID memorial happening with or without state lawmakers
Clarification: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect Sen. Gregg Schmedes’ position on excess deaths.
A legislative statement acknowledging the more than 9,000 New Mexicans who have died from COVID and supporting a planned memorial for them is unlikely to reach the governor’s desk this year.
And when COVID survivors are trying to advocate for a memorial, they continue to be subjected to harmful misinformation from public figures, said Janeth Nuñez del Prado, leader of the New Mexico chapter of Marked by COVID, the largest network of COVID survivors in the country.
Senate Joint Memorial 1 got its first hearings in the Roundhouse during the last week of the 2023 session. It passed the Senate Rules committee on March 13, and the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee on Wednesday night.
The session ends at noon on Saturday.
The Legislature’s support is really critical, Eleanor Bravo, a member of Marked by COVID and chair of the advisory board for New Energy Economy, told the Senate Rules Committee.
“We are continuing to work with many different factions of our society here in New Mexico, so everyone can have input into the content of the memorial,” Bravo said.
The Las Cruces City Council on March 6 became the fifth local government to formally express support for the COVID memorial project. They joined the Village of Corrales, the Sandoval County Commission, the Albuquerque City Council, and the Bernalillo County Commission.
“I was pleased that the Committee stood in solidarity with COVID survivors and passed this memorial,” Nuñez del Prado said. “Recognition is healing.”
Rev. Holly Beaumont with Interfaith Worker Justice New Mexico said she doesn’t believe the Legislature will pass the legislation, but that won’t stop the memorial project.
“The state legislature of New Mexico will not include a voice when we dedicate this memorial, standing with all of these families who are suffering and hoping for reassurance from this state Legislature,” Beaumont said.
Misinformation during committee debate
Before the Senate Health and Public Affairs Committee passed the legislation on Wednesday night, Sen. Gregg Schmedes (R-Tijeras) made a series of false claims about COVID.
While it is true that Schmedes was correct in saying excess deaths are still higher in developed countries all around the world than they were before the pandemic, he falsely claimed “only a tiny sliver of those excess deaths are to COVID.”
In fact, between March 2020 and February 2022, excess mortality in the U.S. rose and fell at the same time as COVID deaths in all states and regional jurisdictions, according to a study led by emergency room physician Jeremy Faust that has not been peer reviewed.
In the fall of 2021, Faust found that COVID death could only be responsible for 64% of the excess mortality in adults over 50 in Massachusetts, and in the fall of 2022, that proportion was higher at 71%.
After publication of this article, Schmedes clarified that his comments were about excess deaths that occurred in the United Kingdom and the United States from the beginning of 2023 onwards.
“As we’ve come out of that season of COVID, from 2020 to 2022, we are now experiencing still excess death rates that are higher than the baseline that are not related to COVID,” he said. “So the vast majority of these excess deaths in both the U.K. and the U.S. are not from COVID.”
Schmedes also opposed the legislation because it acknowledges that COVID “has harmed the health and well-being of children.” He made the false claim that “children have never been at high risk.”
In reality, the CDC COVID Tracker reports a total of 2,122 pediatric COVID deaths as of March 10.
Schmedes also falsely claimed that people have “pre-existing immunity” to COVID “which was clearly evident” in what are called T cells, one of two kinds of white blood cells that defend the body against infection.
In fact, immunity to COVID from T cells is not pre-existing, said Anthony Leonardi, an immunologist and public health student at Johns Hopkins University. Just because T cells can recognize SARS-CoV-2 does not mean they signify immunity itself, he said.
Instead, T cells that haven’t seen COVID yet, called naive T cells, are protective against severe COVID disease, Leonardi said. That does not come from pre-existing memory in T cells, he said.