Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Once the shining example of managing the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico, Santa Fe County has quickly become one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus, with the daily number of cases surging statewide.
The county announced 132 new COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the total to 2,834 since the start of the pandemic.
It took six months for Santa Fe County to reach 1,000 total cases – and a little over a month to reach the next 1,000.
In the city of Santa Fe, as has been the case during much of the pandemic, that number has not been evenly distributed among the city’s residents.
Those living in the 87507 ZIP code, which encompasses the city’s Southside area, are twice as likely to contract the virus compared to the next highest ZIP code, 87505. In total, the area has had 1,581 cases – a more than 1,000% increase since June.
At the time, community organizers on the Southside said the area lacked access to testing and information widely available in other parts of the city. The Southside is home to many of the city’s economically impoverished and immigrant communities, and many of the residents do not speak English as a first language.
“It’s increasing faster than in other parts of the city,” said Miguel Acosta, co-director of Earth Care, an advocacy group based on the Southside. “The gap is widening.”
Acosta said much of the city’s service workers live in the area, putting them at greater risk of contracting the virus at such workplaces as restaurants and hotels. He added that the area north of Airport Road, home to many of the city’s trailer parks, has been hit particularly hard by the virus.
And while the city has made more information available in Spanish, Acosta said it’s rarely advertised on platforms used widely by the Spanish-speaking population.
“That’s still a sort of a connection that they haven’t been able to make in terms of how to really engage with our population,” he said.
Acosta said, given the jobs held by those living in the area, it’s difficult to stop the spread as long as businesses remain open and the city’s options are limited.
“I don’t know what they could do other than wait for the vaccine,” he said.
Flooding the system
Similar to other areas around the state, Santa Fe’s hospitals are seeing a rise in the number of COVID-positive patients.
Lillian Montoya, president of Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, told reporters on Oct. 19 the facility had eight COVID-positive patients. Over the next three weeks, that number rose to 25 total patients as of Wednesday.
Montoya did not accept multiple requests for an interview, but a spokesperson wrote that Christus has 33 total beds and is currently looking to expand that number in the coming weeks.
For health care workers in Santa Fe County, the dramatic increase in cases means being more stringent about COVID-19 testing and making sure the health care system isn’t overwhelmed.
Joanna Anaya, Aspen Medical Center clinic director for Santa Fe and Española, said the clinic has seen an increasing demand for COVID-19 testing. Currently, the clinic is testing only people who are symptomatic.
Anyone with virus symptoms is seen via telehealth and about half of all COVID-19 tests come back positive, she said. The Santa Fe clinic is averaging about 80 to 90 patients a day, including primary care patients.
“I think that if patients just want to know (if they are COVID-positive) without having symptoms, they’re going to flood the system by using our resources,” Anaya said.
Even though cases are climbing, Dr. Stewart Anderson of Santa Fe Mobile MD, said Santa Fe is doing better than other parts of the state because hospitals are still accepting transfers.
Anderson, who is also an emergency room physician at Christus St. Vincent, said that the bulk of people coming into the emergency department are COVID-19 patients. Part of the challenge with COVID-19 is that symptoms are basically “all of the above.”
When treating a potential COVID-19 patient, it’s important to keep them isolated until their rapid test comes back with a result, which can slow down other potential treatments, Anderson said.
“You can’t just race people through to get CAT scans and things like that done because you’re always wondering whether the person has coronavirus and you don’t want to expose all the other patients in the emergency department to this person,” he said.
Anderson said he’s also getting heavier demands by people wanting to get tested and things have definitely gotten busier. Things are also getting close to hitting capacity, he said, but the Santa Fe health care system has been able to manage it and create more space for COVI
Having the summer to figure out how to manage COVID-19 surges has really helped because it let the system learn what works and what doesn’t work, he said.
“That’s made a huge difference as far as our ability to manage this surge now. We’re not where we were in May, as far as wondering how to deal with this,” he said. “We’ve figured out a lot of things. There’s definitely a lot more to learn, but we’re better positioned now than we were six months ago, for sure.”
To help community members determine where it’s safe to shop, the New Mexico Environment Department started a COVID-19 Rapid Response Watchlist. Businesses that have had two or more rapid response cases reported to the state in the past 14 days make the list.
“We wanted to come up with a way to use our data that would ultimately have a positive impact on public health,” Maddy Hayden, a spokeswoman for the department, said.
A rapid response isn’t indicative of how many active cases there are at a business at a time.
A rapid response could include one case, or it could include five cases. In Santa Fe County, there are currently 13 businesses on the watch list, including La Fonda on the Plaza, Clafoutis French Bakery and the Ranch House.
If a business has four or more rapid responses in 14 days, it could be required to close for two weeks.
The only Santa Fe business that so far has been required to close is Chaparral Materials on Agua Fria Street. The business didn’t return phone calls or emails requesting comment.
Bridget Dixson, Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce CEO and president, said she feels that being named on the watch list hurts businesses. She said she’s spoken to some businesses and they did see a decrease in customers due to having a rapid response case.
She added there’s definitely a stigma for businesses on the list, which is frustrating.
“People are afraid to report that they have cases in their place of business because they’re nervous about being put on that list and then having a decline in business,” she said. “So it’s frustrating because clearly it needs to be known, but we need to find a way so they’re not afraid to report those.”
Ranch House General Manager Jacinta Sauve said the restaurant recently shut down voluntarily due to the increase in COVID-19 cases.
Sauve said the first person on staff at the restaurant tested positive had someone at home who had contracted COVID-19. The restaurant became aware of this case on Nov. 3, and then, a couple of days later, two more people on staff also tested positive. She said it’s difficult to tell if these staff members caught the virus at work or somewhere else. One of the people who tested positive has a wife in health care and another works a second job, she said.
On Nov. 6, the restaurant decided the best thing to do would be to close for two weeks.
“We wanted enough time for all of those people to quarantine, as well as the rest of our staff,” she said.
As a result, Sauve said the Ranch House decided to get the entire staff tested and found out five more people also had the virus. Since the positive cases, Sauve said they’ve revisited their sanitation process, which they’ve done multiple times since the pandemic first began.
The pandemic had a big impact on the restaurant, Sauve said. Before COVID-19, it was making record sales and now sales are just enough to keep the doors open. They’ve managed to keep all the staff on that wanted to continue working, but business has slowed.
“Given this involves the health and safety of our staff and our community, we want to be fully transparent about what was going on in regards to COVID,” Sauve said. “So everyone could make a decision, either about whether or not they wanted to work here, or whether or not they wanted to come here … we think that just really the only way to go is full transparency.”