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Editorial: Virus restrictions putting NM hospital, patient health at risk

Fearful a surge of COVID-19 patients would overwhelm New Mexico’s hospitals and ICU beds, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration – like others – issued emergency orders in March designed to protect hospitals and conserve supplies by banning most medical procedures.

Thankfully, that surge hasn’t materialized for most of New Mexico. Now, the question is at what level an already fragile system of medical care in a poor rural state will survive well-intentioned policies applied without more consideration of real-world finances and geography?

Last week, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel, a lawyer by training, eased ever so slightly the ban on surgeries, radiological tests and other procedures that fit into the category of serious but not life-threatening. But the new health order still recommends that hospitals operate at 25% to 50% of capacity. The order makes clear these procedures are still the exception. “All hospitals and other health care facilities … are prohibited from providing non-essential health care services, procedures and surgeries except under the conditions provided below.”

Consistent with government bureaucracies, there is a paperwork obstacle course hospitals and doctors must navigate before they can resume treating patients. Some – such as PPE stockpiles – make sense. Others, such as dictating that facilities require medical staff to cover coughs or sneezes with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash, are ridiculous when you consider the audience.

While we can take note of government regs and paperwork run amok, the real issue is these health orders are killing hospitals around the state. New Mexico hospitals lost a combined $250 million in April alone as revenue streams dried up. Government money to shore them up via the virus stimulus/rescue legislation comes nowhere close to stanching the red ink – any more than a one-time $1,200 stimulus check really helps someone with a mortgage.

The continued lockdown makes sense in places such as San Juan and McKinley counties, given the outbreak there, and even to some extent Albuquerque, where many of those patients are being transferred. (FYI, hospitals here have plenty of ICU capacity and empty beds.)

But how about Lincoln County, with two cases and no deaths as of Wednesday? Or Otero, with eight cases? Does it make ANY sense for their hospitals to operate under the same restrictions as counties with hundreds of cases?

One regional hospital in southern New Mexico has had a whopping total of one COVID-19 patient, who left after one day.

The carnage goes beyond hospitals. As Dr. Janis Gonzales of Santa Fe pointed out in an op-ed in Wednesday’s Journal, more than 40% of doctors have had to furlough or lay off staff as they face dramatic decreases in patient volume. People are reluctant to take children in for well-child checkups and vaccines. So there is danger here – just as postponing many “nonessential” surgeries will lead to worse outcomes and unnecessary deaths.

Hospitals in New Mexico facing serious cash-flow problems also have had to furlough workers – drawing a sharp rebuke from Lujan Grisham. But hospital executives have to deal with fiscal reality, something the governor will soon have to do for the state.

Rather than lecture them, it would make sense for Lujan Grisham to convene a group of hospital executives – including some from south of Interstate 40 – to find a reasonable way out of the devastating financial hole they are in. There are strong arguments – medical and financial – that it’s time to further loosen the reins.

Because a case can be made that this continued ban has cut off the lifeblood of New Mexico’s hospitals – and it’s not a leap to ask if all will survive after the virus is gone.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.