New Mexico officials issue warning about hospital capacity


If COVID-19 continues to spread in New Mexico like it has in recent weeks, officials with three of the largest healthcare systems in the state warned Monday that hospitals and healthcare workers will not be able to keep up.

Despite having some of the most restrictive public health requirements since the start of the pandemic, New Mexico has seen three record-setting days for daily COVID-19 case totals in just over a week. Hospitalizations also have skyrocketed with nearly 290 people being treated around the state, marking a four-fold increase over the past month.

Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, said his organization is seeing its highest volume of patients since the pandemic began. Of the several dozen COVID-19 patients at Presbyterian, about 30% are being treated in intensive care units.

While hospitals have been able to cross-train staff, move some workers around and bring others on board, Mitchell and officials with Lovelace Health System and the University of New Mexico Health System said there would not be enough workers or beds to accommodate COVID-19 patients or other medical emergencies if the pace of infection continues or grows over the next two months.

Modeling by scientists with the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Presbyterian shows that around 900 additional COVID-19 cases a day fills about 180 ICU beds as a result, Mitchell said.

“If you got into a car wreck, there’d be no place for you to go. If you needed to deliver a baby, there may not be a bed in the hospital for you,” Mitchell said. “I mean really if it continued at this current velocity with no rollover, with no tempering back down, it’s hard to describe how catastrophic it is.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in a social media post pointed to the 828 additional cases reported Sunday, saying spread remains at “disastrously high levels.” The state reported its most confirmed cases in a single day — 875 — on Saturday,

Another 732 cases were confirmed Monday, bringing the statewide total to 42,586 since the pandemic began. Another nine deaths also were reported, bringing that total to 976.

The seven-day rolling average of New Mexico’s positive infection rate has risen from 3.2% of those tested at the end of September to 7.5%, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. Comparing seven-day averages of newly confirmed cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in test results.

New Mexico officials have been warning people for weeks about consequences for the healthcare system if spread isn’t reduced. However, a crowd that included student athletes, medical professionals, business owners and others gathered at the state Capitol on Saturday to protest the Democratic governor’s public health order and her response to the pandemic, with many saying the mandates have been unsuccessful in curbing the virus.

In neighboring El Paso, Texas, just south of the New Mexico state line, residents have been urged to stay home for two weeks as a spike in coronavirus cases overwhelms hospitals there. El Paso County has issued a daily curfew from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. in hopes of slowing the spread.

Hospital officials in New Mexico said there’s no indication they’ll see an influx of patients from Texas.

New Mexico hospitals are coordinating with each other. Their contingency plans include measures such as using other areas to house patients, transferring patients to rural hospitals that have more room and reducing the number of elective surgeries as capacity shrinks.

The hospital officials also made another plea for people to wear masks, wash their hands and keep their distance from other people.

UNM Health System Executive Physician Dr. David Pitcher acknowledged that the advice is contrary to human nature and that has been hard for some people.

“This is a marathon that we’re in and it’s clear that everyone is tired. The healthcare workforce is tired. People are tired,” Pitcher said. “But we are in the middle of a relatively significant surge of patients and now more than ever we really need to double down on those simple measures that we know are going to make a difference.”

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