Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Arizona coronavirus patients are being transferred to New Mexico hospitals due to shortages of staffing and bed space at the same time that some New Mexico hospitals’ intensive care units are at or nearing capacity levels.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham addressed the issue this week, saying the transfer of out-of-state patients poses challenges, because New Mexico has fewer hospital beds per capita than many other states.
“That means we have less available for our folks here, which means I have to do even a better job at managing COVID and New Mexicans are going to have to have even more personal responsibility than many other Americans,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview with The Washington Post that was broadcast online.
But she also cited a federal law that requires hospitals to accept patients from neighboring states if they have available beds and suggested that New Mexico would not reject such patients even if it could.
“No American would deny another American health care,” the governor said. “That’s not who we are.”
At least two Albuquerque health care systems – University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian Healthcare Services – have accepted Arizona patients for treatment.
Clay Holderman, Presbyterian’s chief operating officer, said that 96 coronavirus patients from the Navajo Nation in Arizona have been accepted since the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March but that only two such patients have arrived in the past week. Such patients are generally transferred either by helicopter or small aircraft, he said.
A UNM Health Sciences spokesman also confirmed that UNM Hospital has accepted out-of-state patients for treatment, but he declined to say how many.
Meanwhile, a state Department of Health spokesman said COVID-19 patients have been transferred to Albuquerque from Arizona as needed over the course of the pandemic, but not in large enough numbers to affect New Mexico’s ability to take care of its own residents.
“Being able to work with other states to share resources in emergencies is very important, but it’s also important that Arizona learn to better manage the rampant spread of COVID-19 that it’s let occur there,” DOH spokesman David Morgan told the Journal.
He also said he was not aware of COVID-19 patients from states other than Arizona being transferred to New Mexico for treatment.
Hospitalizations are up
Coronavirus cases have exploded in Arizona in recent weeks, with the state’s positive test rate rising to 25% and an increase in deaths causing some morgues to approach capacity.
With cases skyrocketing, some residents of Pima County – which includes Tucson – with serious COVID-19 symptoms have been transferred to Albuquerque, San Diego and Las Vegas due to the local health care crisis, The Arizona Daily Star recently reported.
The number of New Mexico corovonvirus cases has also increased in recent weeks, with the number of new cases tying a single-day record of 330 on Wednesday, although the state’s death rate from the virus has remained below peak levels.
Hospitalizations from COVID-19 have also increased since the start of July. There were 174 people hospitalized due to the virus Wednesday – up from 127 on July 1.
Out-of-state patients transferred to New Mexico are not added to the state’s case count, although they are included in the hospitalization figure.
Overall, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said this week, New Mexico probably sends more patients to other states than vice versa. People who live near state lines, he said, routinely go to the nearest hospital when they’re sick, regardless of whether it’s in another state.
“I would be really surprised if we were a net importer of COVID cases right now,” Scrase said.
But he also said New Mexico health officials regularly monitor the hospital capacity of neighboring states as part of their planning.
Concerns about surge
Despite concerns expressed by Lujan Grisham and other state officials that a surge in coronavirus cases could overwhelm New Mexico’s health care system, that hasn’t happened to date.
The number of occupied ICU beds at seven designated New Mexico “hub” hospitals this week was at 256 – far below the maximum capacity of 614 beds, according to Health Department data.
However, Holderman said two Presbyterian hospitals – one in Albuquerque and one in Rio Rancho – are both at “surge level” capacity and have activated their disaster plans.
But most of the patients at those two hospitals are not being treated for COVID-19, he said, but rather a range of other ailments that have been exacerbated by a lack of preventive care.
In 2018, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported that New Mexico had 1.8 hospital beds per 1,000 people, compared with the national average of 2.4.
State officials have looked for additional beds to absorb a possible surge in COVID-19 cases, including renting the old Lovelace hospital site on Gibson SE in Albuquerque.
But no patients have been treated at the facility, according to the Health Department.
Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.