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A physician at the New Mexico Heart Institute in Albuquerque was hospitalized in intensive care Friday after testing positive for COVID-19, while three other Heart Institute employees have subsequently tested positive for the virus, the state Department of Health confirmed.
More than 100 patients who might have been at risk of exposure to the highly contagious virus have been contacted by Lovelace Health System, which acquired the Heart Institute in 2018.
The physician, who was not identified, is in his 50s.
“We began our investigation last Sunday after the test results was reported to us by Lovelace medical officials,” DOH spokesman David Morgan told the Journal in an email.
Morgan said Lovelace has expanded testing to include staff at the Heart Institute, at 502 Elm NE.
“Lovelace is cooperating with our investigation and has already proactively reached out to just over 100 patients who may have been at risk of exposure and provided guidance with regards to the need for quarantine and testing,” Morgan said in an email response to Journal questions.
It was unclear on Friday whether any patients of the physician have tested positive, but Morgan said the DOH “investigation is ongoing.”
A Lovelace spokeswoman cited “privacy laws” in declining to provide details about the outbreak or where the physician might have contracted the virus.
“A health care worker in our hospital has tested positive for COVID-19,” said spokeswoman Whitney Marquez in an email. “While we must maintain confidentiality, we can share that the organization rapidly responded to the confirmed positive case and this individual was immediately placed in quarantine.”
“We will continue our vigilance in screening our patients and staff for symptoms and providing personal protective equipment to our staff to reduce exposure.”
She added, “Patient safety is our priority. If patients have any concerns or believe they may have been exposed to COVID-19, we encourage them to call the NM Department of Health at 1-855-600-3453 for further instructions.”
In recent months, the DOH and state Environment Department have deployed “rapid response” teams to hundreds of employers and businesses around the state after learning one or more employees have tested positive for the virus.
The aim is to prevent spread of the virus by ensuring that other employees who may have come into contact with the person who tested positive for the virus are tested and quarantined, if needed. Employers are also advised about disinfection of the workplace and future safety plans.
Such teams have been dispatched to law enforcement agencies, restaurants, retail stores and health care facilities, such as San Juan Regional Medical Center and Presbyterian Hospital. Employees at health care facilities around the state comprised about 15% of the rapid responses as of July 1.
At the governor’s COVID-19 update Thursday, DOH Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced that the number of rapid responses since May 11 has soared to 491. That’s up from the 238 reported about a week earlier. That is a reflection of the jump in positive tests overall.
Positive coronavirus tests have increased some 79% over the past 16 days, said Dr. David Scrase, the governor’s top medical adviser in the state’s COVID-19 response, on Thursday.
On Friday, 301 people tested positive, pushing the state’s five-day average of infections to its highest point this year. Scrase said Thursday the increase is not the result of more testing – about 6.5% of the test results announced Wednesday were positive compared to the overall rate of 3.6% since testing began in March.
Prior to the spike in new cases, the state would conduct about six or seven rapid responses a day.
“What is significant is that overnight, we had 44 new rapid responses,” Kunkel said on July 1.
The state Environment Department lists on its website, at www.env.nm.gov, the employers that have been the focus of a state rapid response team. As of Friday, neither Lovelace nor the Heart Institute was listed.