Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
CORRECTION: This story has been corrected to show Dr. Kathleen Allen is employed by the VA medical center.
Colleagues of a New Mexico Heart Institute cardiologist stricken with COVID-19 have gone public to support the physician and his work, with one criticizing the Journal coverage of the death of one of the physician’s patients and another cardiologist stressing the safety measures being taken by the medical community to provide care.
The Journal on Sunday reported the COVID-19 deaths of Bob and Barbara Warren, and that Dr. Charles Kim, an interventional cardiologist, was fighting for his life in the ICU at Lovelace Medical Center. The Journal further reported that Kim was the Heart Institute physician who performed a cardiac catherization July 1 on Bob Warren, a Los Lunas resident, who died on July 27.
Warren had been informed he had been exposed while at the Lovelace Heart Hospital in Albuquerque, where his outpatient procedure occurred. His wife, Barbara Warren, died of the virus on July 25. Family members believe she contracted the virus from him.
Dr. Kathleen Allen this week described Kim as “one of our angels” who has saved “thousands of lives.” She suggested, among other possibilities, that Kim may have been infected by his patient.
Dr. Sean Mazer, president of the Heart Institute, urged people not to delay necessary health care due to fear of contracting the virus. “Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, we have seen delays in care result in preventable deaths and disabilities,” he said.
Both his and Allen’s comments were included in separate letters they sent to the Journal in the wake of last Sunday’s story, and which were published Friday.
Family members say Bob Warren, 77, had tested negative for COVID-19 as part of his pre-surgical screening process, and both he and Barbara, 84, took exceptional precautions to keep from getting the virus.
Warren’s family has criticized the Heart Institute for waiting too long, in their view, to notify him of his exposure and for not taking better precautions to prevent him from contracting the virus.
In her letter to the newspaper, Allen, who is employed by the VA Medical Center, criticized the Journal coverage, saying “the Kim family is suffering in the same way the Warren family is” and that Kim’s privacy had been invaded.
“Everyday he goes to work he places himself at risk of acquiring a life-threatening illness which is exactly what has occurred,” Allen wrote. “Perhaps he worked just one day too many and perhaps Mr. Warren was the patient he should not have touched.”
She wrote that while it is possible Warren got the virus from Kim, there are “many possibilities – including that Kim acquired the virus from Warren.”
In response, Warren’s daughter-in-law Sharon Jonas said, “The facts speak for themselves.”
“Other than that, we have no further comment.”
A top official in the Lovelace Health System, which owns the Heart Institute, told the Journal in July that the source of outbreak couldn’t be ascertained.
Lovelace didn’t respond to specific questions about Warren or Kim, citing federal health care confidentiality rules.
Kim’s sister Sharon Kim had chronicled his struggle with the virus in public social media posts. By Monday, her Facebook public page had been taken down.
More than 100 potentially exposed
Several days after his cardiac procedure, Bob Warren began to show symptoms of COVID-19, including a fever of more than 103, his family has told the Journal. He decided to get another test, which was positive.
Warren contacted the Heart Institute about his symptoms and ultimately was told that he may have been exposed by a health care worker. There was no mention of Kim.
A DOH spokesman told the Journal on July 10 that the state began an investigation on Sunday, July 5, after the test result involving a Heart Institute physician “was reported to us by Lovelace medical officials. In addition, three employees of the Heart Institute have since also tested positive for COVID-19.”
The DOH said more than 100 had been potentially exposed to the virus. Two of those patients received calls about their possible exposure on Monday, July 6, and didn’t acquire the virus, according to Journal interviews.
Jonas has said her father-in-law didn’t receive a call, but learned about his exposure later that week after he phoned the Institute twice to try to report his symptoms.
Typically, state public health officials, and now a new private contractor, perform contact tracing to try to identify how a person became infected and alert others potentially exposed to self-quarantine and get tested.
In this case, Lovelace did its own contact tracing and the DOH said it was satisfied with the efforts.
Meanwhile, Kim’s colleagues responded this week to voice support of him and to highlight his care for patients.
Mazer wrote in his letter to the Journal, “We must continue to support all of our front-line workers who take risks and in some cases, also get sick.”
Without naming Kim, Mazer wrote that one of his partners and close friends was in the ICU.
“… he and my partners risk their health and their family’s health at the hospital and office every day. My partner took every precaution that we currently have. Unfortunately, he is one of the 16 million people who got COVID-19 from another person.”
Mazer described his partner and friend as a “brilliant, gentle steady physician who has been called, often in the middle of the night, to save our neighbors’ lives from heart attacks for more than 20 years.”
In March, hospitals in New Mexico stopped performing non-emergency surgeries and procedures on the order of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as a way to free up hospital space for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients. In the weeks that followed, some hospital administrators raised concerns that patients who were afraid of contracting the virus were delaying routine visits and ending up with worsened conditions.
The combined result was a loss of hundreds of millions of dollars to New Mexico hospitals. Lovelace, among other hospital systems, ended up placing some employees on unpaid furloughs and taking other cost-cutting measures. The prohibition on non-emergency procedures was lifted April 30, allowing some patients who had waited for treatment to receive care.
“As a physician, I encourage those in our community not to delay care out of fear when the greater risk could be from avoiding treatment,” Mazer wrote. “The medical community is ready to safely provide the care you need.
“Above all, as New Mexicans, we must remain clear that while individuals are affected, no one person is to blame. We are all in this together.”