Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – The first person to die in New Mexico’s coronavirus outbreak is an Eddy County man in his 70s with chronic underlying health conditions.
A hospital official said the man had declined to be tested for COVID-19 a week earlier and had denied having had a fever or respiratory symptoms when he arrived at the emergency room Sunday.
The man – whose name wasn’t made public – died Monday at Artesia General Hospital. Test results came in late Tuesday confirming that he had COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“This is a tragic day,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday. “Across our state, across the country, we are all reeling from the effects of this virus.”
The Eddy County man wasn’t initially recognized as a coronavirus case when he arrived at the emergency room Sunday, said Dr. Marshall Baca Jr., medical director of the emergency department at Artesia General Hospital.
The patient denied having had a fever or respiratory symptoms, Baca said, though it’s possible he misunderstood the questions about his symptoms.
Nonetheless, health care providers on duty quickly identified his respiratory symptoms, Baca said, triggering more protective measures, such as full gowns and respirators to avoid infection.
Even before then, hospital workers had been wearing masks, Baca said.
“There was exposure,” Baca said, “but it wasn’t prolonged exposure.”
Five employees are now quarantined at home, Baca said.
As for the patient’s denial of a fever and shortness of breath, Baca said the man may have simply misunderstood the questions as he checked in. The patient’s chief complaint, Baca said, was that he felt weak.
The man had been seen twice earlier this month by health professionals.
In fact, his visit to one clinic is a potential source of his infection, Baca said. A doctor at a Roswell outpatient clinic where the patient was seen March 12 had traveled to New York and is now in quarantine, Baca said.
But the COVID-19 patient didn’t actually see that doctor directly, Baca said.
About a week later, in any case, on March 18, the man went to another location – a family practice – with a cough and respiratory symptoms. The patient was offered a COVID-19 test but refused, which is his right, Baca said.
The man didn’t have “acute respiratory” problems at the time, Baca said.
He was nonetheless told to go home and self-quarantine, Baca said, though he added that he didn’t know whether the man followed the instructions.
13 more infections
In a written statement, Lujan Grisham, a former state health secretary, said New Mexico “is likely to see more death” as infections rise.
“I ask all New Mexicans to include the sick and their families in their prayers – as well as the health care workers and those others on the front lines helping protect us from this disease,” she said.
The state Department of Health said the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 reached 112 Wednesday, after 13 more positive tests and the removal of an earlier case that was a clerical error.
Public health officials also said it’s likely others have the virus but haven’t been tested.
The disease has been detected in New Mexicans ranging in age from infancy to their 80s.
For most people, symptoms of the virus are mild or moderate, and they recover. But older adults and people with chronic health conditions are most at risk.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said the positive test after the Eddy County man’s death was the first case of the disease in Artesia that he’s aware of.
“I come from a small, close community,” Townsend said, “and we certainly are saddened to hear of the death.”
Nine patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, officials said. A few of those hospitalized over the past two weeks have had to have a tube inserted into their airway to help them breathe.
“For anyone in our state who had not yet acknowledged this virus as the urgent public health crisis that it is, who has not accepted the extremely compelling need to stay home, today lays bare the very real, very life-or-death consequences of this disease,” Lujan Grisham said.
A number of people in New Mexico have recovered from the coronavirus, and state health officials said they are working to provide more details about recoveries.
The Lujan Grisham administration has instructed people to stay at home amid the outbreak and ordered the closure of schools and nonessential businesses.
The state began using its emergency alert system Wednesday to send notifications about public health instructions. It’s similar to the Amber Alerts used for missing children.
Limiting person-to-person contact, Lujan Grisham said, is a powerful strategy for slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
“This is why it is absolutely imperative that New Mexicans remain home except for only those most essential or emergent outings,” Lujan Grisham said. “Social distancing and isolation is the best tool we have right now for mitigating the spread of this virus and avoiding capacity issues within our state’s health care system. All of us must undertake these steps in order to save more lives and prevent more deaths.”
More than 800 patients with the virus have died in the United States.
New Mexico health officials described the Eddy County man’s death as the “state’s first death related to COVID-19.”
The state laboratory received his test sample Tuesday and confirmed that he was positive for the disease later that day.
Lujan Grisham, in a call with oil and gas industry groups, said Wednesday that Eddy County is at high risk of coronavirus infections because the man may have contributed to its spread in the community, according to a summary of the call provided by her office.
Eddy County sits atop part of the Permian Basin, the heart of the oil and gas boom that has sharply expanded state revenue in recent years.
In a news release, Artesia General Hospital leaders extended their condolences to the family of the man who died and said, “Many of us share the family’s grief.”
Hospital leaders also said they had been preparing for the arrival of their first COVID-19 patient and are taking steps to maintain the safety of their staff and other patients.
Baca told reporters Wednesday that the hospital was conserving its supplies of protective equipment to remain ready for more patients.
“As of right now,” he said, “we feel prepared.”