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Three more deaths as NM virus outbreak accelerates

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham talks about different types of face masks in a news conference Friday. (Courtesy of Governor’S Office)

SANTA FE – New Mexico is projecting that its hospitals will have just 27% of the intensive care beds needed at the peak of the coronavirus outbreak – underscoring the need to slow the spread of the disease, state officials said Friday.

The new projections came as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that three more New Mexicans had died amid the pandemic, bringing the death toll to 10. Most of those who have died are older adults with underlying health conditions.

In addition, the number of coronavirus cases confirmed in the state climbed to 495, the governor said, with 92 new cases announced Friday – a 23% increase in a day.

“The only real way to attack this virus is to stay away from it,” Lujan Grisham said during a remote news briefing from the state Capitol, streamed on the governor’s Facebook page.

In addition to the new cases, Lujan Grisham and several Cabinet members released more detailed projections on what’s at stake as doctors and nurses battle the virus.

The disease is projected to kill between 2,100 and 4,700 New Mexicans over the next 12 months, depending on how well people heed state instructions to stay home and engage in social distancing, said Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase.

Staying home “will quite literally save the lives of first responders and health care workers who are completely dedicated to doing everything they can to protect you,” Lujan Grisham said.

She also cited companies that are working to produce more gloves, masks and other medical equipment in light of a national shortage.

At one point during the news conference, the governor displayed several types of masks to show New Mexicans the types of face coverings that are necessary for doctors, nurses and other health care workers.

Those medically designed masks should not be used by state residents for outings to the grocery or pharmacy, she said. Earlier this week, she urged residents to use face coverings when leaving their homes, suggesting scarves or homemade masks to shield the nose and mouth.

Modeling

The projected death toll released by the state Friday is much worse than a forecast released last week by University of Washington researchers. The university had projected about 510 deaths in New Mexico through this summer.

But Scrase, a physician, said the state is actually at an even higher risk for COVID-19 – the disease caused by the coronavirus – than outside projections show.

A relatively older population and high rates of chronic liver disease, diabetes and other illnesses, he said, make New Mexico particularly vulnerable to coronavirus deaths. In some counties, for example, about half the population is older than 60, while the statewide figure is roughly 23%.

A wide range of outcomes is possible, of course, but under the moderate scenario in the state’s projections, 3,066 people would die over the next 12 months.

“When we stay home, when we wash our hands after we cough … it makes the difference” in how the projections turn out, Scrase said.

The state will also need many more intensive care beds than are expected to be available.

Hospitals can push their maximum capacity to 589 ICU beds in the state, officials said. But that’s just 27% of the 2,175 intensive care beds that would be needed at the peak of the outbreak, according to state projections released Friday.

The state also projects a shortage of 1,281 general hospital beds and a shortage of 1,004 ventilators unless more resources are brought in.

State officials have already announced plans for more hospital beds in Gallup and Albuquerque, where the old Lovelace hospital will be used, and have said they’re also looking for additional sites in other cities around New Mexico.

The peak stress on hospitals statewide is projected to be between mid-April and early May. But there may be surges in different regions of the state, Scrase said, with the first coming within days in northwestern New Mexico.

Response plan

Lujan Grisham said anything she can do to limit the number of people who end up in hospitals is on the table. She said new limits on how many shoppers and staffers can be in big-box stores at the same time will be released in the coming days.

Instructions for social distancing, the governor said, have not been heeded in some cases.

State health officials are encouraging New Mexico residents to wear masks when going shopping and on other emergency outings, though doing so isn’t required.

The recommendation was driven, in part, by awareness that the disease can spread even without a cough or sneeze, state officials say. Individuals with no symptoms at all can spread the virus, they said, triggering the recommendation that everyone wear a mask.

In addition, Lujan Grisham also said state prisons are preparing to release about 40 inmates approved for parole earlier than they had been scheduled – part of an effort to reduce the threat of a quickly spreading virus in a confined area.

‘Incredibly tough time’

The three deaths Lujan Grisham announced Friday are the most revealed in one day.

“We know this is an incredibly tough time,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are doing everything in our power to prevent as many deaths as possible.”

The three people whose deaths were announced Friday were all men in their 70s or older. Two of them were residents of an Albuquerque retirement community, and each had an underlying medical condition. The other was in Sandoval County.

Lujan Grisham also said that 41 people are now hospitalized in New Mexico as a result of COVID-19. Eighteen are on ventilators to help them breathe.

The governor said state officials have been recruiting nurses from Canada to help with the coronavirus outbreak. An unknown number of them could arrive in New Mexico in the next week or so, although they may be required to self-isolate for a while before joining the state’s medical workforce.

Rapid spread

Coronavirus has spread rapidly since New Mexico confirmed its first case March 11.

However, the governor and other state officials have said social distancing strategies – including a ban on large public gatherings and the closure of businesses deemed nonessential – appear to be helping slow the spread.

Scrase said Friday the number of virus cases in New Mexico was doubling every two days early in the outbreak, a rate similar to that in New York, where hospitals ended up overwhelmed.

But as of Friday, Scrase said, New Mexico’s rate was 3.9 days.

Most people who test positive for coronarivus have only mild to moderate symptoms – including fever, cough, fatigue and shortness of breath – and do not require hospitalization.

Some develop more severe symptoms, and Lujan Grisham has said the state’s death tally will increase in the coming days and weeks.

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