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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Here we go again.
A wave of new COVID-19 infections, now attacking some of the most vulnerable age groups, has New Mexico hospitals reactivating surge plans and tightening restrictions on hospital visitations.
Within the next few weeks, the demand is bound to get worse, state health officials say.
New Mexico hit a record high for new cases Friday with 819. Saturday’s count was 577. Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have soared nearly 80 percent since Oct. 1.
And last week, University of New Mexico Hospital was over capacity. So Presbyterian and Lovelace Health Systems hospitals “immediately stepped in, and we worked out a system to protect them,” said Dr. David Scrase, the governor’s top medical adviser and secretary of the state Human Services Department.
Unlike earlier in the pandemic, the driving concern isn’t about a shortage of personal protective equipment. Instead, it’s having enough medical workers to treat COVID-19 patients.
“One of the things we know that can be an issue isn’t the beds or the ventilators; it’s the staffing. It’s the nurses and doctors and respiratory therapists,” Scrase told the Journal on Friday.
“If you’re a health care worker – an ICU nurse, for example – and have been doing this for six or seven months, it wears people out. So we’ve seen some attrition in critical care folks across the state because it is such intense work for so long.”
The spike in cases is of particular concern to Scrase because it is affecting all age groups.
“The first peak substantially was driven by older people, in April and May,” Scrase said. “The second peak, in July, was almost overwhelmingly driven by younger people, who had less serious illness and are less likely to be hospitalized and less likely to die. Now we’re seeing all age groups surge again.”
People ages 50 and older, particularly those older than 65, tend to have underlying conditions that make them sicker with the virus.
That age group, Scrase said, “is having the highest case counts on record, so we’re going to see more hospitalizations and more people dying.” Typically, two weeks into a surge of infections, hospitalizations rise.
Meanwhile, hospitals in southeastern New Mexico have been hit especially hard in the past four weeks, with an 85 percent increase in COVID-19 patients. Earlier this year, the northwestern corner of New Mexico was the hot spot.
Rising positivity rate
With new daily cases more than doubling and hospitalizations increasing 78 percent this month, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week gave some of the most dire predictions in months.
The influx of COVID-19 patients into hospitals, she said during a televised public update on Thursday, means “at some point you don’t have enough hospital beds to meet the demand every day for individuals who need hospital care. It means we start pushing out everybody else that would need care.”
New Mexico’s hospital network is about to be stretched again, she said.
“We are moving so rapidly in the wrong direction, we know that some New Mexicans are not going to get the care they need,” Lujan Grisham warned. “This is untenable. This is untenable for our health care providers.”
Once among the states with low positivity rates among those tested for the virus, New Mexico is now above the recommended positivity rate of 5 percent or lower. The state is now tied with Michigan for second place nationally for the rate of increase in new cases, Scrase said.
Combining that with the state’s 47th ranking nationally for hospital beds per capita leaves health care experts especially worried.
The worsening numbers led state health officials to reactivate a statewide call center last week. The call center earlier this year helped organize the transfer of seriously ill COVID-19 patients to hospitals in the state that had available bed space. That way, no one hospital had to bear the burden of a huge influx, Scrase said.
As a precaution, UNM Hospital on Friday tightened its visitor policies. Scrase said other hospitals are reexamining their visitor policies, which were relaxed in late June after a nearly total ban.
Scrase said it isn’t clear how many of the new cases in recent weeks involve people without symptoms who might not get seriously ill.
Under the reactivated surge plan, New Mexico will be able to add 140 to 150 ICU beds to its current 290, Scrase said. New Mexico hospital officials earlier in the year added bed space by converting operating rooms and other units.
Months ago, the state set its sights on the old Lovelace hospital building on Gibson SE in Albuquerque as alternative care facility in case additional hospital beds were needed. It was being outfitted for up to 200 patients.
It’s sitting unused.
“We have the equipment for Gibson, and we have a plan for Gibson, but the issue is that to make Gibson a general hospital with two or three hospital wards, you need (medical) staff … the same groups of people that we’re facing the shortest supply of right now.”
Discussions are underway to find another use for the building, he said.
Lujan Grisham cautioned last week that now is not the time to minimize the risk of getting coronavirus or downplaying its danger.
New Mexicans should not “succumb to the national rhetoric that it’s not as bad of a problem, that there are plenty of great treatments, that most of us won’t get sick, that’s it’s not going to spread as fast, that it’s just like a cold. All of that is nonsense…”
“This is a deadly virus and it’s looking for opportunities to spread,” she said. “And in New Mexico, right now, it has found it.”