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COVID-19 cases soar among NM health care workers

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – COVID-19 infections among health care workers in New Mexico have spiked as intensive care units remain full, and nurses argue for more personal protective equipment, or PPE.

The state previously released data showing that 154 health care workers in the state had tested positive for the coronavirus as of April 21. An additional 492 workers were diagnosed the following month, a 219% increase, according to new data provided by the Department of Health.

“The increase was completely and totally expected and would normally just be a proportional number of cases,” said Dr. David Scrase, Cabinet secretary for the Human Services Department.

Scrase said, though, that the number has caught the attention of state officials.

The largest increase came in Bernalillo County – home to three of the state’s COVID-19 hub hospitals – where another 181 workers tested positive.

San Juan and McKinley counties, both of which have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus pandemic, also had a surge.

One hundred more workers were diagnosed in San Juan County, bringing its total to 119. McKinley County, which had only three workers test positive as of April 23, had 97 more workers diagnosed.

But many hospitals are still not revealing how many of their workers have tested positive for the virus, making it difficult to know which facilities are having the worst outbreaks. This includes both hospitals in Gallup. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham shut down the city for nine days to slow the spread of the virus.

A spokesperson from Gallup Indian Medical Center said the facility would not release the number of COVID-positive workers.

Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital spokeswoman Ina Burmeister said they have seven nurses currently recovering from COVID-19, which temporarily caused staffing issues in the hospital. However, she declined to give the hospital’s total number of cases.

“We’re just not thinking about publicizing that information at this time,” she said.

Burmeister said Rehoboth chose not to provide information because Gallup Indian also declined.

“We want to remain consistent in our community,” she said, adding, “I like to be helpful, but I have to be careful as well.”

Rehoboth has faced many staff-related problems since the pandemic started. In May, a group of employees took a vote of no confidence in CEO David Conejo, Searchlight New Mexico reported.

Spokeswoman Laura Werbner said San Juan Regional Medical Center would not release the number of infected employees because it could not determine which cases came from the community or from patients.

“It’s just really hard to determine what cases came from the community,” she said.

Doña Ana and Sandoval counties also had notable increases.

Eleanor Chavez, executive director of the local chapter of the National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees, said her union is still advocating for numbers of sick workers to be released.

“It’s something that we’ve actually continued to complain to the hospital about,” she said, referring to University of New Mexico Hospital.

Scrase and hospitals in New Mexico have said PPE available to staff has greatly increased in recent weeks.

However, Chavez said she thinks supplies of PPE should still be enlarged because many nurses and staff have to reuse masks for days at a time. She also said infections among health care workers are increasing, not decreasing.

“We think those numbers are too high, and the hospitals need to be doing more to protect the workers,” she said.

University of New Mexico Hospital, for example, sends regular PPE supply status updates to employees. The updates include no numbers on PPE available; instead, it shows a green dot to signify supplies are sufficient.

Hospitals, though, are not the only facilities with coronavirus infections among their staffs. Infections among staff members in nursing homes have also been a major concern, Scrase said.

La Vida Llena of Albuquerque has had one of the worst nursing home outbreaks in the state. David Leibowitz, a spokesperson for La Vida Llena, wrote that 37 staff members have tested positive, and he did not know how many were medical staffers.

Infections in health care facilities could also have far-reaching impacts beyond hospital walls and could affect how soon the state can continue reopening.

“We can’t continue to expand the economy unless that health care workforce is there and they’re healthy,” Scrase said.

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