Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
The curve has yet to flatten in northwestern New Mexico, despite efforts to lock down Gallup and find safe housing where virus patients can self-isolate.
Combined, McKinley and San Juan counties continue to account for the vast majority of New Mexico’s cases, including 136 of 207 additional COVID-19 cases reported on Monday.
Health officials announced eight additional deaths Monday. The state now has 5,069 cases and 208 deaths, 121 of which have been of patients from those two counties.
“This is hard for the community, and people are scared,” said Dr. Sriram Shamasunder, part of a San Francisco health care team that is working shifts at the 100-bed Gallup Indian Medical Center and the 60-bed Indian Health Services hospital in Chinle, Arizona.
“At this time, providers really want to have a human connection with the patient, but everything is muffled through a mask,” he told the Journal. “With elderly Navajo folks, especially, we watch their eyes to judge if they’re scared or calm.”
Many of the critical COVID-19 patients in the area are transported to Albuquerque or Flagstaff. Caring for intubated patients requires additional staff, equipment and space that the Gallup IHS hospital, with six ICU beds, doesn’t have, Shamasunder said.
It’s common for Gallup doctors to treat family clusters of Navajo COVID-19 patients – in one instance, four generations of relatives contracted the virus. The Navajo Nation had 3,122 confirmed cases Sunday and 100 deaths in its multi-state area that spans parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
“It is frustrating to send those patients away,” Shamasunder said. “I treated a 44-year-old man here in Gallup who had been sick for 12 days, and finally he was just too short of breath. He told me, ‘I don’t want to die.’ I told him we were going to do everything to keep that from happening. He was intubated the next morning and flown to Albuquerque.”
Four of the eight deaths announced Monday were in McKinley County. The state also reported a death in Cibola County, one in Socorro County and two in Bernalillo County.
The eight victims ranged in age from their 30s to their 90s. Six of them had an underlying medical condition and seven had been hospitalized.
State officials reported that 207 people are hospitalized with the disease and 1,300 have recovered.
Shamasunder said the pandemic lays bare the inequities in tribal communities. He cited underfunding of IHS, lack of water infrastructure and broken government treaties as factors that make tribes and pueblos vulnerable.
Directly across from Gallup Indian Medical Center is the Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services hospital. CEO David Conejo told the Journal last week that at least 19 staff at the 60-bed hospital have tested positive for the virus.
Searchlight New Mexico reported last week that a group of Rehoboth medical staff is concerned about what they say is dangerous understaffing and mismanagement of patients. On Friday, KOB reported that seven doctors at a protest threatened to quit unless the CEO resigns.
When asked about the allegations, Conejo told the Journal that he does not want to dismiss concerns of staff, who, “for whatever reason, feel disenchanted.”
“We worked like crazy to create a plan for using the hub and spoke model,” Conejo said. “We asked ourselves questions like: ‘What if Gallup Indian Medical Center gets a deluge of patients, can we take more on? What if our rooms are filled? What if the alternative care sites become full? If all of a sudden, there are patients coming from everywhere, how can we work with hospitals in other cities?’ ”
Rehoboth also moves critical patients to Albuquerque and Flagstaff hospitals. Patient overflow is also managed at a 60-bed alternative care site at Gallup’s Miyamura High School.
Dan McKay contributed to this report.