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NM hospitals allowing visitors again

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As the number of people hospitalized with serious cases of the coronavirus has steadily declined, hospitals around New Mexico are slowly lifting bans that kept loved ones and friends from visiting sick in-patients.

“We are reaping the rewards now of a lot of proactive behavior in the state that has minimized the spread of the disease and we’re seeing that in our hospitals. And as the census has come down for COVID-19 positive patients, it’s not putting as much of a strain on us,” said Troy Greer, CEO of Lovelace Medical Center and the Heart Hospital of New Mexico.

Hospital officials at Presbyterian and the University of New Mexico Hospital joined Lovelace on Friday in announcing new visitation policies. Other hospitals in southern New Mexico and rural hospitals are expected to also allow visitors back, Greer said. In some hospitals, only one visit per day will be allowed and visitors must wear masks.

The number of patients hospitalized statewide with the virus was 128 on Friday – the lowest reported since April 24.

Compared to the peak of virus cases in April and May, Lovelace is “down well over 50%” in terms of the number of patients needing hospitalization for COVID-positive symptoms, Greer said.

The total number of COVID-19 patients in Lovelace’s ICU has also dropped by more than 50%, Greer added.

Tim Johnsen, senior vice president of hospital operations at Presbyterian Healthcare Services, told the Journal fewer COVID-19 patients have been hospitalized since mid-May.

“Across the Presbyterian system, about 46% of our intensive care beds are currently occupied by confirmed COVID-19 patients,” he added.

But the decision to allow some type of limited visitation comes as top state officials this week announced a “troubling” uptick in new COVID-19 cases throughout New Mexico.

Dr. David Scrase, secretary of the state Human Services Department who is leading Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s medical team, said new cases reported this week could impact hospital capacity in the future.

“We would expect to see an increase in hospitalizations to follow two weeks from now, all other things being equal,” Scrase said.

Moreover, the total number of non-COVID patients requiring ICU beds around the state is up.

“It’s up and actually holding relatively steady right now not because of COVID patients but we have a lot of other patients with other needs that are in the ICU right now,” Greer said Friday.

Along with barring visitors, hospitals in New Mexico temporarily halted elective surgeries and other procedures in mid-March to ensure space for potential COVID-19 patients. That restriction was lifted last month.

“The majority of the ‘fullness’ of hospitals right now is related to the surge of non-COVID patients ‘catching up’ on delayed care, or hospitalized from complications possibly related to staying away from the health-care system,” Scrase said.

Also looming is the possibility that new COVID-19 surges in neighboring states, such as Arizona, could lead to transfers of out-of-state patients into New Mexico hospitals.

Lujan Grisham said at a COVID-19 update on Thursday, she is monitoring ICU beds in the region every morning, “and in Arizona and Texas they are filling up very fast.”

She said she is concerned those cases “are going to start being diverted to New Mexico.”

Previous protocols

Hospitals voluntarily opted to close their doors to visitors early in the pandemic for staff and patient safety and because of a shortage of personal protective equipment, like masks.

“Previously it was just a bit of a challenge because of the number of patients coming in and the importance of keeping them safe with PPE,” Greer said. “Now that there’s fewer patients, we’re able to allow a limited amount of visitation with appropriate protections to our team members, to the patient, to the patient’s family members. We feel like the time is right.”

The three main hospitals in Albuquerque have adopted similar loosened visitor restrictions, Greer said.

At Lovelace, one family member or visitor per patient will be allowed each day, and if the visitor leaves the patient’s room, he or she must leave the hospital.

No visitation is permitted of COVID-19 patients at either Presbyterian or Lovelace except in specific circumstances. UNM permits no visitation of COVID-19 patients, recommending video visits instead.

Visitors to the hospitals will be screened for fever or other health conditions and must stay in the patient’s room for their visit.

Lovelace and Presbyterian will permit one support person for patients in the emergency department receiving critical care. But at UNM Hospital’s ER, visitors will still not be allowed “because of space limitations and social distancing rules,” said spokesman Mark Rudi on Friday.

Greer said allowing even restricted visitation “will enhance communication and emotionally, obviously it’s going to be a big pickup for family members as well as the patient. Our staff enjoys the interaction with families. And sometimes it’s helpful when you have a patient who’s maybe not able to articulate some of those important pieces of information.”

Such involvement is crucial to the human experience,” Greer said, “and especially when you are going through an illness.”

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