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UNMH CEO describes pandemic’s strain

Kate Becker

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — University of New Mexico Hospitals CEO Kate Becker remembers a time late last year when the hospital was overrun with COVID-19 patients.

It was in November and December, around the time of the state’s deadliest surge of the pandemic.

“We converted our urgent care to in-patient spaces. We converted our science clinic to in-patient spaces. We shut down (operating rooms) and made those into (intensive care units),” Becker said while addressing the Economic Forum of Albuquerque Wednesday morning. “We adapted dramatically in terms of staffing, space and equipment across the entire platform. … It was a heroic effort, and there is no other word for it.”

Becker said the past year has put tremendous strain on UNMH’s resources.

COVID-19 patients are sicker than other patients in general, and require more intense care. Meanwhile, the hospital is still seeing the impact of patients who put off various health care needs during the pandemic. Becker said an average “case mix index” — a measure of how sick patients are — is 1.0. Over the last six months, though, UNM’s case mix index has been over 2.3.

“That is the highest it’s ever been in the history of this hospital. And we always take care of really sick people,” Becker said. “… Patients are really sick.”

Becker said the pandemic has been trying for UNMH staff working with patients.

“The emotional toll of having no visitors in the hospital, no family members in the hospital, means our staff was the family members for these patients,” Becker said. “And that is emotionally really hard.”

Becker said UNMH has also marked significant progress during the past year. The mass vaccination clinic at The Pit had delivered 51,465 doses of vaccine as of Tuesday. Financing is underway for the long-planned UNMH hospital tower, which will house an adult emergency department, operating rooms and 96 intensive care unit beds and other facilities under a single roof.

“It’s really necessary, because even before COVID, we were full,” she said. “During COVID, we were beyond full.”

The hospital stepped up its virtual visits last year, a trend Becker said was accelerated by the pandemic but will likely be here to stay. Becker said the hospital also tried to step up its employee support through peer support programs and other services.

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