Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s hospitals are modifying medical equipment to make more ventilators, confronting price gouging and freeing up bed space as they prepare for a surge in new virus cases, according to an online panel discussion moderated by the Journal on Wednesday.
The top executives at Presbyterian, Lovelace and the University of New Mexico health systems also said they are collaborating well together and ready to work as a team amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can see the tsunami that is fast approaching the state of New Mexico,” said Paul Roth, a doctor, chancellor for UNM Health Sciences and CEO of the UNM Health System.
The comments came in a 90-minute discussion sponsored by the Journal and moderated by Senior Editor Kent Walz.
The health executives also acknowledged a grim possibility – that their doctors and nurses won’t be able to care for everyone who needs help amid a spike in coronavirus cases. That means updating ethical guidelines to aid in the decision-making.
But the leaders offered some optimism, too. They said New Mexico’s early moves to close schools and nonessential businesses, ban public gatherings and instruct people to stay home bought some time to prepare for the coming explosion in illness.
“This is a window of opportunity we have to take advantage of,” said Dale Maxwell, president and CEO of Presbyterian Healthcare Services. “The supply chain has probably never been under this amount of pressure.”
Each of the health executives said their systems are preparing for what’s to come and believe they’re in good shape. But the work has included some unusual challenges and solutions.
Ron Stern, president and CEO of Lovelace Health System, said Lovelace is converting about 75 anesthesia machines into ventilators in case they’re needed.
“Everyone is dedicated to fighting this virus,” he said.
Securing extra supplies has come at a price. A mask that used to cost 50 cents, Stern said, now goes for over $5. Nonetheless, he said, Lovelace has ordered new masks, and about 300,000 are coming to New Mexico.
The University of New Mexico, Roth said, is researching potential treatments for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
The early results are “very promising,” he said, but he cautioned that research into the medications hasn’t yet withstood a rigorous scientific review.
“I am very excited about the possibility that these drugs are going to make a real difference in the survival of patients who have this COVID-19 disease,” Roth said.
The hospital systems have also freed up bed space by postponing surgeries that aren’t immediately necessary, in keeping with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s recommendation, the executives said.
The health systems are also sharing some key staff with the governor’s administration to aid in planning, and the hospitals are collaborating well with one another and the state, the panel members said.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase, a physician, said some promising signs have emerged in the data on New Mexico’s virus outbreak. The number of confirmed cases – now at 363 after 48 new cases were announced Wednesday – appears to be doubling every five days, Scrase said, rather than every two days, as it did early on in New Mexico.
“The fact that we’re at five is amazingly good news,” he said.
Scrase also urged New Mexicans to continue staying home and embracing other social distancing strategies, arguing it could save 10,000 lives in the state.
Maxwell said that not only is social distancing important now, but it may have to be employed intermittently until a vaccine is discovered or the population builds up enough immunity.
Even after the initial surge in cases to come, he said, the state may face a “dance” of relaxing the rules and then having to reimpose them amid a future spike in cases.
Each health executive encouraged New Mexicans to do what they can to limit the spread of the disease.
“If you have to leave your home,” Roth said, “imagine that every person you meet and every surface you touch is infected and then act accordingly.”
Scrase and the health leaders covered a variety of other topics, too:
• Roth said health care leaders must prepare for the possibility that more New Mexicans will need care than is available at the peak of the outbreak. That will mean difficult decisions, he said.
“We don’t want each individual nurse and doctor to be in that situation and trying to sort that out on their own,” Roth said. “There needs to be some kind of set of values and principles that have been worked out in advance to help guide all of us.”
• Stern said the old Lovelace hospital on Gibson SE in Albuquerque could be used to offer extra bed space in the coming months. But staffing any new intensive care units is a trickier problem, he said.
“My biggest concern is less the facility than availability of ICU nurses,” Stern said.
Bringing back retired nurses is among the options.
• Scrase said 29 people are now hospitalized for the disease, 19 of whom are in an ICU and intubated to help them breathe. A sixth person has died, the state announced Wednesday.