Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Top New Mexico officials said Tuesday that they are expanding the standards for coronavirus testing, as the state’s death toll from the respiratory disease increased to five – with an additional death in Bernalillo County – and the total number of confirmed cases rose to 315.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said state officials are searching for additional hospital beds in cities across New Mexico to help absorb an expected surge of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks. Part of their plan includes refurbishing the old Lovelace Hospital in Albuquerque.
She also said social distancing strategies to limit spread of the disease are likely to last until mid-May – if not later – and urged New Mexicans to stay home and limit their outings.
“Social distancing is the most meaningful tool we have,” Lujan Grisham said during a remote news conference that was streamed on the governor’s Facebook page. “The less transmission, the more lives we’ll save.”
The most recent announced death was that of a Bernalillo County man in his 40s who died at home earlier this week. He had an underlying medical condition, the governor said, and his COVID-19 test results didn’t come in positive until Tuesday.
He is the youngest person to die in New Mexico from COVID-19, the virus caused by the coronavirus. Four older adults in Bernalillo and Eddy counties – all at least 70 years old – have also died over the last eight days.
Lujan Grisham said New Mexicans should brace for fatalities to increase in the coming days, saying, “The reality is we will see more deaths.”
With the state’s having ramped up its testing capacity, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said New Mexico is also expanding its standards for who can be tested for COVID-19. Previously, only people with symptoms were supposed to be tested, she said.
But some people are now encouraged to be tested even if they don’t have symptoms, at least in some circumstances. People who have been in close contact with someone who’s been infected are now encouraged to be tested, for example, even if they don’t have a fever or respiratory problems.
“There’s evidence that early detection for asymptomatic people can help us to contain the spread of community transmission of COVID-19,” Kunkel said during Tuesday’s briefing, in which she and other state officials fielded written questions submitted by reporters.
Lujan Grisham has issued several emergency orders to try to limit the spread of coronavirus. They include a “stay-at-home” order that bars public gatherings of 5 or more people and a closure of businesses deemed nonessential statewide.
In addition, a three-week closure of public schools statewide has been extended for the rest of the academic year, and the state’s 89 school districts have been directed to come up with distance learning plans for their students.
There are some indications those measures could be working, as the state’s case doubling rate – the amount of time it takes confirmed coronavirus cases to double – has slowed from every 2 days to every 3.25 days, the governor said.
New Mexico health officials also unveiled Tuesday some of their modeling for the coronavirus outbreak.
Researchers at the University of Washington project that New Mexico’s intensive care units could face a 122-bed shortage at the peak of the outbreak in late April or early May. They also projected that hundreds of New Mexicans could die through this summer, the first wave of the pandemic.
Dr. David Scrase, secretary of New Mexico’s Human Services Department, said the projection may be optimistic.
For instance, he said, New Mexico’s ultimate coronavirus infection rate could end up being between 250,000 and 1.25 million people – a wide range that spans roughly one-eighth of the state’s population to more than half its residents. The larger figure, Scrase said, represents a worst-case scenario without social distancing.
He also said that there are signs social distancing strategies in New Mexico are making a difference but that it’s critical to do more. He pointed to one evaluation that graded New Mexicans’ reduction in travel as only a C, not the A the state is shooting for.
State officials showed data sets created by Unacast, an organization that tracks cellphone movement, and said residents of some New Mexico counties have decreased their average distance traveled by more than 40%. In other counties, however, the travel reductions have been much smaller – or even increased. Overall, the state movement declined 24% from late February through March 26.
“We’re concerned they may be getting overwhelmed,” he said.
The challenges are stark, Scrase said, but if the state can cut the disease transmission rate in half and double its health care capacity, “I think we can make this work.”
He also said state health officials had been planning for the outbreak since January. Scrase said they hoped to be able to avoid “ethical decision-making” – or determining what type of patients might get critical medical supplies at the expense others – but have to be ready for such a possibility.
With state health officials estimating there will be a total of about 3,500 coronavirus-related hospitalizations, state officials said Tuesday that they’re trying to free up more hospital beds around New Mexico.
There are currently about 2,500 hospital beds statewide, Scrase said.
To that end, the state is expecting the U.S. Department of Defense to provide a U.S. Army field hospital that Lujan Grisham requested. That facility would likely be set up in Albuquerque, and state officials are investigating potential sites.
Officials are also planning to reconfigure the old 200-plus-bed Lovelace hospital, 5400 Gibson SE, to expand the state’s health care capacity.
Extra hospital beds are also being sought in Santa Fe, Las Cruces, Roswell, Farmington and other cities around the state, the governor said.
Meanwhile, New Mexico National Guard Maj. Gen. Kenneth Nava said 160 guard members are already deployed around the state helping with testing and meal services, among other duties.
He said that figure will likely increase in the coming days, adding that the governor was planning for the worst while hoping for the best.
Lujan Grisham said she will continue pushing the federal government and private companies to provide needed masks, gloves, ventilators and other medical supplies.
“We will create the kind of environment where New Mexico is as prepared as it can be,” the governor said.