Small-town reaction to big-city virus

by | Jun 8, 2022

Columbus, NM, shocked by COVID early on, adapts for new normal

Story and Photos by Reyes Mata III as part of the Southern New Mexico Journalism Collaborative.

Ninety-one miles of melted snow and runoff from mountain ranges of Northern New Mexico, the small river flows through the Southern New Mexican desert, going underground beneath Deming, then Columbus, and surfacing again in the sparkling lakes of Puerto Palomas de Villa, a small tourist town of about 4,600 just across the border. 

That’s the story of Columbus and Palomas, too: generations of unfettered connectivity binding the two communities above the ground and the Mimbres binding them beneath it. Many in Columbus have family homes in Palomas, and most people in Columbus frequent the less expensive shops and services available in their town’s Mexican counterpart.

For generations, Mexican families in Palomas, mindful of future opportunities for their children, have come to Columbus to give birth, then return to Palomas with their American newborns to live a Mexican life. When these youngsters are ready for school, Columbus school buses retrieve them at the border, obliging their legal right for public education in this country.

“The border is an imaginary line in Columbus. It’s a gray area,” said Norma Gomez, a lifelong resident and an official for the local chamber of commerce.

When the news of the COVID-19 pandemic reached the village, it was viewed as a threat too distant to be alarming, and too abstract to distract residents from the welcomed stability of the small town. Some residents waved it off as a peculiar big-city affliction.

“People were saying it can’t happen here because we are just a small town. They were saying that it only happens in large communities,” said Ezequiel Salas, the current mayor of Columbus. “Then a few people died, and more people were getting sick, and a lot of people were getting seriously ill.” Salas himself caught COVID and battled 106-degree fevers.

Soon the reality of the strange new disease set in, consuming the small town.

“It was painful and horrible,” said Mario “Mars” Darby, as he rested against the handlebars of the mountain bike he had been riding down an unpaved Columbus road. “My girlfriend, her mom and damn near all of my friends got COVID. Everybody was talking at first about how nobody was getting COVID and everybody was okay, and how we were isolated. But then there were large outbreaks and then people started dying.”

But even as the changes sunk in, some things stayed the same, he said.

“People never stopped having large parties,” he said. “We’re social animals. What are we supposed to do? Self-quarantine is rough on humans.”

Like much of the country, Columbus had those who were hesitant to believe that COVID was real, and saw no need to get vaccinated. In Luna County, where Columbus sits, 88.5 percent of people are fully vaccinated, slightly higher than the 71 percent of New Mexicans throughout the state and considerably higher than the national average of 67 percent[1] . According to data from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, the zip code including Columbus had a 9 percent “hesitance rate,”[2]  based on how many people stated they would not take a COVID vaccine.

Columbus resident Maria Rutiaga lost her mother, Olga Rutiaga, to COVID last November. “She had just turned 76,” Rutiaga remembered. “She did not have her shot. You know how old ladies are. She did not want to get her shot. She would say, ‘No, you don’t know what they’re going to inject you with.’”

Then her mother, who was generally healthy, began losing her appetite. The close-knit Rutiaga family was concerned, but the last thing on their minds was COVID. “She didn’t have any other symptoms. We thought she was having a stroke or something. She was not having problems breathing or anything,” said Rutiaga. They took her to El Paso, about two hours away, where she was diagnosed with COVID.

The family labored over what to do, and finally made the difficult decision to leave her in the hospital. For two weeks they waited for her to recover. But her medical problems compounded each day, and her oxygen level withered.

“After 13 days they told us they had to disconnect her,” said Rutiaga. “It was terrible.”

So far, 21.8 percent of Columbus residents – 409 out of 1,873 –  have gotten COVID, according to the U.S. Census and New Mexico Department of Health numbers. That’s lower than the surrounding county, where 28 percent of residents have become infected, and the state, where 25 percent of people have.

Tracking COVID deaths in small communities like Columbus is more difficult. Those numbers are only available at the state and county level, New Mexico Department of Health Communications Manager Katy Diffendorfer stated in an email. Luna County has recorded 129 deaths as of May 9, and New Mexico has recorded 7,596 deaths as of May 12, according to a database maintained by the New York Times.[3] 

Columbus is a particularly hard place to track deaths, due to its close relationship with Palomas. “A lot of them we don’t know about,” Salas said. “They went to Palomas when they got sick,” and their deaths remain uncounted.

His best estimate is about eight deaths, but he warned that was just a guess.

Cesar Sanchez, an employee of the Columbus Public Works who oversees cemetery burials, agreed that COVID deaths are probably undercounted in the town.

“Most of the people that did die, they took them to Mexico,” he said. “I think only one or two people were buried here because of COVID. But the rest of the people went to Mexico.”

Aid for Columbus

The pandemic brought other transformations to the town. While federal COVID relief was intended to help Americans survive, poor communities like Columbus, with a 42.5 percent unemployment rate and 34 percent poverty rate[4] , may have actually gotten an economic boost from it.

“This is one of those rare communities where our economy went up because of COVID,” said Gomez of the Columbus Chamber of Commerce. “We had a lot of people on unemployment and people here don’t usually get but $100 or $150 dollars on unemployment a week. And with those extra $300, and then in the summertime when it was $600, people made more money this year than they have in other years when they were working. It’s crazy.”

An SNMJC analysis of New Mexico’s population shows that one in four New Mexicans live in small communities like Columbus, with less than 50,000 residents. The federal government recognizes 100 of these small communities in New Mexico, and they all shared $63 million in relief, according to an October 2021 report from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee.

The village of Columbus received $201,743[5]  and legal residents also benefited from the $5.5 billion in stimulus checks released to New Mexicans.[6]  Luna County received $4.6 million, which placed it 18th in the state for COVID funding, according to estimates from the New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee[7] .

New Mexico has received about $22 billion in federal funds, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, as well as New Mexico Legislative Finance Committee officials and documents.

Salas said the town tried to make the most of the federal assistance they received, tapping into grants and paid staff to create a culture of “outdoor activity” to help prevent the spread of COVID.

“We are building trails around town, and we’re trying to just get people outside,” he said. “We worked on our parks so people could go out to our parks. We have built a lot of sidewalks here in our little plaza, we’ve done a lot of landscaping.”

The town is also investing in broadband infrastructure to connect its residents with the internet, and provide them access to government meetings. But for some – the older residents and those unfamiliar with internet technology – Columbus is still a digital desert.

“Sure we have the internet. But we don’t know how to use it,” said Ruben Orozco with a hearty laugh. He sat on a park bench in the Columbus placita with his friends Gilberto Lujan and Juaquin Torres. All three men were older, “past their 60s,” and said they received most of their information from Spanish-language television news. Orozco, who said he caught COVID early in the pandemic, quarantined for 15 days and never developed serious symptoms. They visit Palomas frequently, and all said they were fully vaccinated. They also repeated a sentiment heard often in the small town: “There’s no way I’d go to the hospital if I was sick. That’s where they kill you,” said Torres. “Well, that’s how it is in Mexico and I would say that is how it is here.