SANTA FE — New Mexico’s COVID-19 death rate exploded to a record high on Thursday, prompting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to say she is planning new business restrictions.
She didn’t announce any immediate changes, but she said the state might tighten its public health order as soon as next week.
The governor bluntly warned that New Mexico is running out of hospital beds and scrambling to add more health care workers to help handle a deluge in hospitalizations.
“This is uncontrollable community spread and it leads to overwhelming our hospitals … and unnecessary deaths,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference broadcast online.
The 23 new coronavirus deaths announced Thursday weren’t just a single-day record, but 64% more than the previous high in New Mexico.
The deaths — victims ranged in age from three people in their 40s to a Santa Fe County woman in her 100s — also boosted the state’s rolling seven-day average of virus-related deaths to roughly 12.6 deaths per day. That’s above the previous peak of 10 deaths a day in mid-May.
And the loss of lives could continue at an alarming rate, as Human Services Secretary David Scrase said state officials are expecting 13 or more daily deaths due to the virus over the next two weeks.
“We need to deepen as a community our respect for the virus,” said Scrase, who said 10% of the state’s 1,082 deaths due to the disease have now occurred in the last two weeks.
He also said that nearly 17% of New Mexicans who have been hospitalized due to COVID-19 have ultimately died, a morbidity rate that’s higher than that of advanced cancer patients.
Meanwhile, the state has averaged about 887 new virus cases a day over the last week — more than three times as many as a month ago and the highest New Mexico has seen in the pandemic.
Hospitalizations also show troubling trends.
Four-hundred virus patients are in New Mexico hospitals — more than four times as many as a month ago. That figure includes both in-state patients and those transferred to New Mexico from other locations.
“We are in a dramatic crisis situation,” Lujan Grisham said.
But the governor said New Mexicans can still get the rampant virus spread under control in the coming months, adding, “We have the power to reverse course and I believe we can still do that.”
NM on Lockdown?
The governor didn’t announce any immediate changes to New Mexico’s public health order, which is set to expire next week, though she warned they may come if the trends don’t improve.
She said she wants a little more data on whether some of the measures imposed last month are making enough of a difference.
Amid the recent surge in cases, the Lujan Grisham administration has already reduced the maximum size of public gatherings — from 10 to five people — and ordered the closure of most businesses at 10 each night. Masks are required in public settings.
The state is also pursuing a targeted approach to business restrictions, requiring temporary closures if there are four separate instances of infected employees within a 14-day period. The first three companies affected by the rule had to close earlier this week.
Lujan Grisham said some businesses have been flouting their essential business status to hold large events, but did not elaborate.
She also acknowledged a broader lockdown order could be forthcoming, though the governor has previously said such drastic actions would be a big hit to the state’s already-beleaguered economy.
“People should expect that we’re going to tighten it up,” Lujan Grisham said Thursday.
New Mexico’s seven hub hospitals had 298 intensive care beds occupied Wednesday, exceeding the state’s baseline capacity of 290 ICU beds for coronavirus patients.
“We’re already running out of beds,” Lujan Grisham said.
But hospitals can boost their capacity to 439 ICU beds by postponing elective surgeries and closing down other units.
Staffing is a challenge. Lujan Grisham has asked retired and inactive health care professionals in the state to register as volunteers for the New Mexico Medical Reserve Corp.
And about 400 traveling nurses under contract with New Mexico hospitals are expected to arrive in the state this month.
“Just having a room with a bed in it doesn’t help unless you have someone to care for you,” Scrase said.
Hospitals are now engaged in emergency operations and may have to invoke “crisis standards of care” in the next two to three weeks, he said, meaning they would have to prioritize who gets full care. Staffed general hospital beds are about 92% full.
Dr. Jon Marinaro of the University of New Mexico Hospital, who participated in Thursday’s remote news conference, said nurses and doctors are enduring heartbreak as they see entire families arrive sick, knowing some of them will die. Hospital employees are also returning to work, he said, after seeing the virus hit their own families.
The work takes a psychological toll, on top of the physical discomfort of wearing personal protective equipment all day.
“It’s a devastating disease,” Marinaro said.
He urged people to adhere to mask-wearing requirements and engage in social distancing or hospitals may have to ration care.
“These volumes are enormous,” Marinaro said. “Our clinical systems are extremely strained right now.”